Three and a half stars
Directors Adrian Buitenhuis and Derik Murray
Starring Heath Ledger, Naomi Watts, Ben Harper
Running time 92 minutes
Verdict A moving, personal tribute
THERE’S a gently eulogistic tone to this “official” documentary about a gifted young actor who died well before his time, but that’s not necessarily a criticism.
Heath Ledger’s premature death at the age of 28, from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs, was a very public event.
Almost a decade later, his family and friends are finally ready to speak on the record.
The result feels like a very sophisticated version of the poignant video montages played at funerals or wakes.
What sets I Am Heath Ledger apart from these moving amateur compilations, apart from the filmmakers’ considerable experience in the area (I Am Chris Farley, Johnny Cash: American Rebel), is the extraordinary wealth of “home movie” footage shot by Ledger himself.
An avid photographer, Ledger documented his journey from the time he left home in Perth at the age of 17 with childhood friend Trevor Di Carlo.
This affords audiences an intimacy with the film’s subject that is at times slightly disturbing — when Ledger is fooling around making a short mystery film in his hotel room, for example.
In behind-the-scenes footage on the set of The Patriot, the young and still inexperienced actor expresses nervous excitement about working with Mel Gibson.
And he displays a natural, easy athleticism in rehearsals for the dance sequence in A Knight’s Tale.
Most surprising, perhaps, for those who didn’t know him, is Ledger’s skill and experience behind the camera. He’d already directed a number of music videos at the time of his death and was planning his first feature.
Close friends such as Ledger’s production partner Matt Amato, directors such as Ang Lee and Catherine Hardwicke, and fellow actors Djimon Hounsou and Emile Hirsch, fill in the gaps.
Former partner Naomi Watts recalls the constant stream of guests that came through the home she shared with Ledger in Los Angeles — a crash pad for Australians trying to make it in Hollywood, including Joel Edgerton and Ben Mendelsohn.
Ben Harper is passionately effusive about his close friend, remembering the time Ledger had a grand piano delivered to his doorstep.
Ledger’s father, mother and three sisters share their memories too.
Although it addresses the actor’s insomnia, and hints at an underlying emotional struggle caused by his split with Michelle Williams and anxiety over his separation from daughter MatiIda, I Am Heath Ledger chooses not to delve too deeply into the reasons behind Ledger’s use of prescription drugs, including painkillers, sleeping pills and anti-anxiety medication.
Directors Adrian Buitenhuis and Derik Murray are content to celebrate a full and unconventional life, painting a rich, detailed and genuinely-haunting portrait of a prodigiously-talented free spirit.
The dark side of Ledger’s story — if there is one — is left for somebody else to tell.
I Am Heath Ledger is now screening in selected cinemas on limited release
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Originally published as A haunting portrait of Heath Ledger