When West London immigrant Kiranjit Ahluwalia poured gasoline on her husband's bed as he slept and lit it on fire in 1989, it was the culmination of a decade of physical and mental abuse. Was her action murder or manslaughter? Was she provoked? The British courts came down hard, sentencing Ahluwalia to life in prison for the murder of her husband.

"Provoked" takes up Ahluwalia's case, which turned into a landmark in English criminal law in 1992, when "battered wife syndrome" was recognized as a valid defense for murder. The movie is made by Calcutta-born Jag Mundhra, whose resume is littered with a different variety of burning beds - direct-to-video erotic thrillers.

It isn't a total surprise then that Mundhra and the film's writers have turned an important story into a soapy sermon, bringing up issues of xenophobia and sexism only to largely ignore them in favor of cornball emotionalism. Hey, why explore racism when it would cut into the screen time of Ahluwalia's threatening prison nemesis, a (what else?) bullying butch lesbian?

Vets Miranda Richardson, Rebecca Pidgeon and Robbie Coltrane are on hand, providing some measure of support, though Richardson's solution to the ineptness surrounding her is to dial her performance up to 11.

As Ahluwalia's tough-talking cellmate, Richardson stands up to the aforementioned threatening lesbian and shows the newcomer the ropes.

She's the gal pal every girl needs in the pen.

Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai plays Ahluwalia, acquitting herself in her bid to be taken seriously as an actress. She gives us a sense of this woman's emotional fragility, a quality even Mundhra can't obliterate. *

Produced by Sunanda Murali Manohar, directed by Jag Mundhra, written by Carl Austin, Rahila Gupta, music by A.R. Rahman.