Conceiving Ada
First screened and reviewed in March 2000
Director: Lynn Hershman-Leeson. Cast: Tilda Swinton, Francesca Faridany, Karen Black, Timothy Leary, J.D. Wolfe, John O'Keefe, John Perry Barlow, Esther Mulligan. Screenplay: Lynn Hershman-Leeson.

Twitter Capsule: Engrossing case history of a 19th-century genius wrapped inside an increasingly awkward, dubious contemporary frame.

VOR:   Hershman-Leeson certainly made major technical leaps in how she produced this project. Still, many of its ambitions come through more richly in Teknolust.

Photo © 1997 Hotwire Productions/Outpost Studios,
1999 Fox Lorber Films
Lynn Hershman-Leeson's film deliberately plays on the double entendre of its title, one which might have prospective renters wildly misinterpreting what they are about to watch. The film explores the dual and sometimes duelling ways in which women "conceive," centering around a brilliantly innovative computer scientist named Emmy (Francesca Faridany) who is carrying to term both a pet academic project and an infant child. The film is far more interested in the technology narrative than in the procreative one. This, at least, is a relief, since the scientific achievements of women are so often overlooked and even prevented by the way society—and, just as often, cinema—pigeon-holes them as essentially domestic creatures. The subject of Emmy's research is Ada Byron King (Tilda Swinton), an actual historical figure whom many scholars believe made the crucial mathematical breakthroughs in the nineteenth century that led to the invention and development of computers. (Ada's discoveries are usually credited to her acquaintance and sometime colleague Charles Babbage, played in the film by John O'Keefe.) Emmy, working at the very cusp of pre-21st century electronic engineering, has fine-tuned a new computer technology that allows her to "enter" photographs that she scans into her machine, turning their flat visual planes into resurrected three-dimensional spaces and allowing for direct, improbable dialogue between herself and the people captured in the photographs.

"Improbable," unfortunately, becomes a key word and an unbearable weight on this project, which tries very hard to portray women as radical learners, misunderstood geniuses, and recoverers of their own lost history. The disposition and ambition of the project had me, as they say, at "hello," but somewhere along the way, the execution lost me. Emmy, who is so zealously embroiled in her work that we have a hard time connecting with or liking her, has invented a technology that we have a hard time taking very seriously—or, at least, as more than a conceit of a restlessly curious but curiously flat picture. Though the film received attention in some egghead circles for being the first to generate computerized sets behind its actors, the sets themselves are obviously synthetic and occasionally flirt with the flat-out ugly. The excitement of the film's technological breakthrough ultimately founders under our impatience with the coarse colors and the hard, pixelated quality of the art direction. The longer Conceiving Ada goes on, the more I felt that writer-director Hershman-Leeson hadn't quite figured out what to do with the characters she created, at least in the modern setting. Ironically, that whole plot eventually breaks down to the same sort of family-vs.-work firestorm—are Emmy's long hours in front of her computer screen irradiating or harming her baby?—that have marked so much of the anti-feminist art to which Conceiving Ada ostensibly means to provide a corrective. These questions and debates have value, but they are not the questions and debates I was interested in engaging within this particular project, which constructs such a uniquely compelling environment but seems all too conventional all too soon.

Unsurprisingly, the best reason to see Conceiving Ada is the performance of Swinton, one of the decade's hardest-to-cast but most superlative actresses. Her controlled, utterly unsentimental work as Ada Byron King anchors the Victorian half of the picture, pervading her sequences with a profound melancholy that derives both from the thunderous sense of revolutionary possibility that surrounds the character and from the well-known fact that her career and her legacy will be so powerfully thwarted. Swinton's crisp ability to play a heroine without asking for adulation makes us wish (well, made me wish) that Hershman-Leeson had dispensed altogether with the modern-day frame story and Francesca Faridany's sullen performance as Emmy, which gets almost twice the screen time that Swinton's turn does. Conceiving Ada deserves points for calling our attention to a woman whose fusty, rule-bound society utterly failed to capitalize on her abilities. It also deserves credit for being an adventurous, one-of-a-kind work of art that demonstrates the continued pliability and immanent renewability of cinema itself, 100 years into its life. Still, I wish the filmmakers had conceived of a whole movie to wrap around its fascinating heroine. Conceiving Ada is tantalizing to consider, but only half-pleasurable to actually watch, and it fails at its ambassadorial task of prompting us to want to see more films like it. At least, for now. Grade: C

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