I Am Heath Ledger

Sarah Ward

Standard in construction but not in emotion, this documentary pieces together a portrait of the Australian actor.
I Am Heath Ledger

With the death of a loved one comes memories and farewells. The two painful processes might seem adversarial, but they’re intricately intertwined — and I Am Heath Ledger combines both. Family members, childhood pals, celebrity friends and those that knew him best in the film industry offer their recollections of the Australian actor, sharing anecdotes, titbits, and insider tales. And, as they do so, they appear to step closer to coping with saying goodbye. 

Directed by Adrian Buitenhuis (TV’s Facing) and Derik Murray (helmer of the similarly titled I Am Evel Knievel and I Am Chris Farley), the documentary focuses on its titular lost star, of course, but there's no mistaking just what the interviewees seen on screen are going through. Indeed, tributes to the dead are made for the living, which applies equally to Ledger’s nearest and dearest, and to his fans in this case. Consider the end result a filmic eulogy interspersed with intimate footage of Ledger being himself, rather than playing other characters. For those involved with the feature, it’s a chance to reflect and revisit; for everyone else, it gives a glimpse of the man behind the performances.

Cue a barrage of clips, most captured on grainy home video and shot by a camera-obsessed Ledger, that cross that chasm. In slices of his private life throughout his ascension from aspiring new talent to Hollywood heart-throb to lauded thespian, he’s frank, fun, funny, freewheeling, and frenetic, often all at once. His passion for his craft, his generosity, his eagerness to try new things, and his willingness to take up a challenge all bubble to the fore — and if they didn’t in the archival material, the parade of talking heads repeatedly pops up to stress these traits. A chronology of his career provides the documentary with its structure, but snippets are judiciously used and the official interviews audiences might expect are largely absent. When well-chosen scenes from 10 Things I Hate About You, Brokeback Mountain, I’m Not There and The Dark Knight are sighted, though, they make the desired rousing impact.

To call I Am Heath Ledger illuminating, inquisitive, or objective isn't accurate. Instead, it leans into its affection and adoration of a man recognised by the world through his on-screen portayals and off-screen fame, yet truly only known by a smaller, closer cohort. The film doesn’t seek to interrogate or investigate, or even to explain, but to champion. All of its interviewees, from Ledger’s parents, siblings, and schoolmates, to his agent and dialect coach, to the likes of ex-girlfriend Naomi Watts, Brokeback Mountain director Ang Lee, musician Ben Harper, and fellow Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn, utter loving praise tinged with their own sadness at his loss.

Unlike the ostensibly comparable Cobain: Montage of Heck, there’s more radiance than darkness on display here — and, unlike Amy, this isn’t an indictment or dissection of a downfall, either. Still, where Ledger is concerned, it shares the same sense of authenticity that arises from the film’s personal footage. How the content is compiled together might be standard, as is the feature’s overall construction, and the course it charts might be routine, eschewing probing for praise, but Ledger’s unaffected, enthusiastic, artistry-seeking air infects every frame regardless. In fact, his easy, bright, eager presence makes the mourning behind the documentary’s otherwise applauding faces feel all the more affecting; beyond his roles, we see what they’re grieving for, remembering, and farewelling.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5

I Am Heath Ledger
Directors: Adrian Buitenhuis and Derik Murray
Canada, 2017, 90 mins

Release date: May 11
Distributor: Backlot
Rated: M

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, Metro Magazine and Screen Education. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay