I Am Heath Ledger Review
Heathcliff Andrew Ledger was born on 4 April 1979 in Perth, Australia, and he died on 22 January 2008 from cardiac arrest brought on by an accidental intoxication from prescription drugs. He became only the second posthumous Oscar acting winner - after fellow Australian Peter Finch for Network - for his performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight. He had had one previous nomination, Best Actor for Brokeback Mountain.
Untimely death is always tragic – especially at the age of twenty-eight, as Ledger was – and you often wonder what someone like him could have achieved if not cut off so suddenly in his prime. I Am Heath Ledger is a straight-ahead, mostly chronological journey through his life, interviews with family, friends and working colleagues interspersed with extracts from some of his films and home-video footage. As well as acting, Ledger had filmmaking ambitions, and we see several examples of his still and moving camerawork, paintings and drawings, also a promo video for Ben Harper's “Morning Yearning” that he directed. He had also been a junior chess champion, and an adaptation of Walter Tevis's novel The Queen's Gambit would have been his first film as director.
Ledger was a young man who seemed turned up trumps in life: he had both considerable good looks and considerable talent, and by all accounts he knew it. He seems to have been a natural risktaker: playing safe did not interest him. He also, with hindsight and the testimony of friends, seemed to have a sense that he would not be around for very long, so needed to get things done in the time he had. After graduating early from high school, he and his friend Trevor DiCarlo (one of the interviewees here) drove from Perth to Sydney – and that's a long way, not far short of 4000 miles by road – in order to break into acting. Some of his earliest roles were in Perth, though, and on television, making his big-screen debut in a small role in 1997's Blackrock. He was given a copy of the script of 10 Things I Hate About You and immediately wanted to play Patrick, the lead male role – and went for it and got it. Working in Hollywood, his house was a regular meeting point and crash pad for other Australians in town, including Naomi Watts (with whom Ledger had a relationship for a while) and Ben Mendelsohn, both interviewed here.
The documentary is more about Ledger as a person, so there isn't much discussion of his film roles, other than a few of the most significant staging posts in his career. So we hear about The Patriot, which gave him the chance to work alongside his hero Mel Gibson, who mentored him to some extent. A Knight's Tale, Monster's Ball, The Four Feathers, Ned Kelly, Lords of Dogtown (director Catherine Hardwicke interviewed), Brokeback Mountain (we hear from director Ang Lee) and The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan audio) are also all covered, but there's nothing on the lesser-known films he made in his home country (Two Hands, for example, or Candy, both of which earned him Australian Film Institute nominations for Best Actor).
Inevitably the tone darkens halfway through, as Ledger's sleeping problems cause him to take the prescription medication that, in an accidentally fatal combination, ended his life. There are some gaps. Michelle Williams, whom Ledger started dating on the set of Brokeback Mountain and with whom he had a daughter, isn't interviewed. The documentary is clearly intending to show Ledger in a positive light, as no one has a bad word to say about him. There's no doubt their loss at his early death is a deep one. Our loss is the films he might have gone on to make with his considerable talent and yet grateful to experience the ones he did.
Dazzler Media have released I Am Heath Ledger in separate Blu-ray and DVD editions, and a checkdisc of the former was received for review. As a documentary, it has been exempted from BBFC certification, though it contains just enough strong language to get a 15 rather than a 12 if it were to be submitted.
The Blu-ray transfer is in the ratio of 1.78:1, with the homevideo footage pillarboxed into 4:3 and the extracts from Scope films appropriately letterboxed. The interview footage was shot on HD video, and is appropriately sharp and colourful. It should look pristine and it does.
The soundtrack is a choice of DTS-HD MA 5.1 or LPCM 2.0 (playing in surround). There isn't much to choose between these two, which mostly puts music in the surrounds: much of the film is made up of interviews with single subjects and monophonic archive footage. Fixed English subtitles appear for some archive footage where dialogue isn't entirely clear, and there are also optional English hard-of-hearing subtitles.
On the disc are More Stories from Family and Friends (24:02), or in other words deleted scenes. While you can see why most of these were removed from the main feature, as an hour and a half is about right for it, these are still worthwhile. They are arranged in chronological order for the various points of Ledger's life that they cover, and include his sister Kate's memories of accepting his Oscar on his behalf, at which point, she says, a feeling of calm descended over her and her family. It ends with footage of the memorial in Perth, at the point where he finished his regular run at high school. Also on the disc is the trailer for I Am Heath Ledger (2:33).