Conceiving Ada is the story of Ada Byron King, the daughter of British poet Lord Byron, a Victorian lady with all the requisite neuroses, as well as an unusual talent for mathematics. Ada (Tilda Swinton), who collaborated with inventors and fellow visionaries, accomplished a great deal in her brief 36 years, publishing articles predicting the uses for the modern-day computer.
Writer-director Lynn Hershman Leeson relied on these writings and Ada's letters in conceiving the screenplay, although she begins her film with an unnecessarily complicated and drawn-out exposition about Emmy Coer (Francesca Faridany), a modern-day Ada. Emmy, an artificial-intelligence researcher with a live-in boyfriend, becomes pregnant and frets over how the baby will interfere with her work. The tin-eared dialogue does nothing to improve the contrived connection between Emmy and Ada-how us girls never have time for our work after husband, children, et al.-nor does it adequately explain Emmy's area of expertise to the technologically challenged. It seems Emmy is a genetic-memory expert whose 'agent'-the virtual bird that travels between present and past on her computer screen-is able to retrieve Ada's memories. All the technological gobbledegook aside-and there's enough in this film for a supercomputer-you can't escape the haunting way in which Leeson investigates the life of Ada, who's considered the mother of all computer programmers. (In fact, a computer language, ADA, used by the U.S. government, is named for Ada Byron.)
Leeson, an artist who has previously produced many award-winning shorts and feature-length videos, is also an electronic-arts professor at the University of California at Davis. Her facility in matters technological-even the writer-director's explanations at a recent screening left most of the audience bewildered-led her to envision this film in virtual space rather than on real sets. Leeson's students helped to 'build' those sets by taking photos of hundreds of Victorian era bed-and-breakfasts in San Francisco, which were then fed into a computer and modified by Leeson-she removed anything that would make the rooms appear modern. With the exception of a real apartment used for the scenes with Emmy and her boyfriend, Conceiving Ada utilizes only virtual sets. Swinton and the other actors from her 'present' were shot against a blue-screen with a digital camera; off-screen monitors told the actors where they were positioned on the virtual set. On-set digital artists created composites of the performers, which were later combined with the virtual sets and transferred to 35mm. The entire film looks strangely lit, but since you're mostly watching Ada on Emmy's computer monitor, the 'lighting' seems realistic. Leeson edited by hand because the technology did not exist at the time of post-production to digitize the images she'd created.
Leeson portrays Ada as a woman whose accomplishments were achieved through a sheer force of will. Swinton (Orlando, Female Perversions) is an actress who draws on the dramatic contrast of her slight stature and a palpable inner strength, so she is perfectly suited to the role of Ada. Never do you imagine Ada-or Swinton for that matter-as a victim, nor does Leeson want Ada to be perceived in that way; she rightly portrays her as a woman saddened by her fate, believing upon her death that she had not completely fulfilled her destiny. Few actresses could communicate that level of complexity, as Swinton does, in a film that's preoccupied with form.
There's enough in Conceiving Ada for several films, and that's the problem-the dramatic and rather tragic story of Ada's life is what's absorbing. You want all the virtual sets, the silly relationship between Emmy and her boyfriend, as well as her relationship with her mentor-played by Timothy Leary-to go away. Ada's life embodied all the feminist messages Leeson seems determined to express, and Ada's accomplishments, even if you disregard the considerable obstacles she encountered, are awe-inspiring. Fortunately, there is enough unbroken time with Swinton's Ada to make watching Conceiving Ada worthwhile.