Ada Byron King, the daughter of Lord Byron, wrote what essentially became the first handbook on computers more than a century ago. “Conceiving Ada” pays homage to this largely neglected historical figure, weaving in a modern tale of cyber research, a woman’s quest for identity and the genetics of intelligence. The extremely highbrow fare is challenging both visually and intellectually but lacks the emotional kick to attract more than a niche audience. While its oddball nature suggests cult appeal, it will not match the commercial performance of such similarly targeted pics as “Orlando” and “The Pillow Book.”
As the film opens, Amy Coer (Francesca Faridany) is researching artificial intelligence and cybertechnology. She has developed several agents to retrieve the past and begins to track down her spiritual mentor, Ms. Byron King. The pursuit eventually pays off, much to the bewilderment of the Victorian-era Ada (Tilda Swinton).
The communication between the two women unlocks a bond that spans two centuries. While the details have changed, both basically find themselves diminished as a result of gender. Ada’s research is usurped by another (John O’Keefe), while Amy’s is scuttled by her boyfriend (J.D. Wolfe) in the name of her health and sanity.
Adding to the dramatic tension is Amy’s pregnancy, which allows others to step in to “protect” her. But she’s well defended and resentful of the roadblocks to her research, and of the prospect that her child — to be called Ada — will experience the same attitudes inflicted on her mother and her namesake.
In her first mainstream feature, filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson aims high, in subject matter and in an innovative visual style. But like the bygone character, she appears set in the belief that all things are predictable and that accidental elements are to be avoided. That mutes much of the story’s emotional potential, often reducing the film to a bloodless intellectual exercise.
Still, Faridany effects a compelling performance that transcends the cerebral conceits of the material. Also energizing the piece is the late Timothy Leary as Sims, Amy’s mentor, who offers guidance in conversations along the computer highway.
The most striking aspect of the film is its integration of conventional and digital photography. The latter elements are blended into the piece, punctuating the drama with odd, effective reminders of its scientific pursuit. The cutting-edge technology by Bill Zarchy is abetted by the handsome images created by vet cinematographer Hiro Narita.
Finally, the heady, scientific aspects of “Conceiving Ada” prevail and inform the film. It sorely needs more “random” elements of human nature to set the balance right.