16th January 2018
In the unwavering affection bestowed upon its subject, Adrian Buitenhuis and Derick Murray’s ‘I am Heath Ledger’ provides an unusually doting biographical account of the Perth born actor who, in 2008, sadly died at just 28 years of age. While this acquiescent approach gives one a slight feeling of superficiality, it’s nonetheless a touching and entertaining document of a talented young man who – possessed of a restless spirit and an obvious zeal for experience – packed a lot into his tragically short life.
The film is largely constructed of talking head interviews featuring Ledger’s parents and sisters, friends both pre and post-celebrity (including fellow Aussies Naomi Watts and Ben Mendelsohn), along with clips of his acting performances and an assortment of footage recorded by Ledger himself. There is an unexpected abundance of the latter – besotted with the camera, the young actor was forever involved in capturing life, experimenting with shots and documenting his downtime. These home videos – particularly sat alongside the fond recollections of his nearest and dearest – create an almost familial intimacy, making Ledger’s fate all the more poignant.
Undoubtedly the tone of the film is one of glowing endorsement of Ledger as a man and while the contributions are heartfelt and human, this is not the place for a truly objective account of his character. In this regard, the film is at its most interesting – and more tangible – as a study of Ledger’s evolution as an actor. After his debut role in 1999’s ‘Ten Things I Hate About You’, he could’ve easily settled for cashing in on his looks but instead had a more serious and diligent approach to his craft. We learn that he “had a lot of fun saying ‘No’” to roles, had a predilection for interesting directors and obviously wasn’t cowed by any macho, heart-throb pretensions when taking his breakout role of a gay cowboy in 2005’s ‘Brokeback Mountain.’
Aside from Ledger’s career as an actor, there’s much inspiration in the details of Ledger’s embracing of existence; he had a passion for travel and chess (he was close to grandmaster status), he was an aspiring filmmaker, started a record company, choreographed and directed music videos and was working on his directorial film debut at the time of his death. Seemingly inexhaustible, he baffled friends with late night phone calls while turning up at the crack of dawn to gate crash their breakfast.
Though there’s plenty of Ledger appearing visually, and sometimes audibly, in his own footage, it’s disappointing that we don’t hear more of his personal insight. One interview clip is a rare instance of a revealed vulnerability when Ledger says “It’s kind of a rule of thumb for me to self-doubt” but unfortunately these clips are few and far between. Elsewhere, there’s only the shallowest of excavations in search of any troubles he may have had (there are brief mentions of insomnia, long flights and overworking) and the cause of his death – that of a cardiac arrest induced by a cocktail of prescription drugs – isn’t mentioned at all.
When used to describe biographical documentaries, ‘hagiography’ is often employed as a derogatory term. However, though a one-sided celebration of a life and character, it would perhaps be unfair to label this film in such a way (though musician Ben Harper’s contributions, in particular, stray into inflated exaltation). It may simply be true that Ledger was the great guy that is portrayed here and there’s considerable evidence for this: He kept in close contact with his oldest friends, he had an alacrity to share his success and opened up the doors to other, less successful actors at his Los Angeles home and we see him a clip of him effortlessly entertaining a child actor on the set of ‘The Patriot.’
All being said, this tender approach makes for a warm and enjoyable 90 minutes and – particularly in view of Ledger’s final role as The Joker in 2008’s ‘ The Dark Knight’ and the posthumous Academy Award that followed – a moving tribute to a talent extinguished far too early.
Coinciding with the tenth anniversary of Heath Ledger’s death, ‘I am Heath Ledger’ is released on DVD, Bluray and Digital on Monday 22nd January.