The DVD release of Derik Murray and Adrian Buitenhuis’ documentary on the 22nd of January marks the tenth anniversary of the iconic actor’s tragic passing, to the exact day. Yet, this intimate exploration of Ledger’s life and career from a naive teenage heartthrob to an internationally revered actor is far from a sorrowful biopic of loss and sadness. Instead, the directing duo choose to commemorate the vitality and creativity so present in Ledger’s life, both inside and outside of his work, and provides a moving celebration of his raw, unique talent.
Through a selection of intimate interviews, home footage and Ledger’s personal art in the form of mesmerising music videos and endless photography, the documentary creates an image of the young actor which has sadly been forgotten, obscured by the circumstances of his very sudden death. The absence of his former wife and respected actress Michelle Williams is noticeable, but a wealth of other important influences and relations to Ledger are present. His close family, friends and costars (including director Ang Lee and fellow Australian Naomi Watts) each come forward to relay intimate tales and anecdotes, painting the portrait of a relentless, selfless visionary. At the tender age of 17, along with a few of his closest friends, the Aussie set foot for stardom and never looked back. Mapping his journey to Hollywood, fuelled by a determination to discover fame in America, we are invited into Ledger’s personal journey from a sensational movie icon (projected into fandom fame with 10 Things I Hate About You) to an award-winning actor (his breakout performance in Ang Lee’s iconic Brokeback Mountain to his posthumous Oscar win for The Dark Knight). It’s an inspiring narrative of the importance of determination and remaining resolute in one’s vision, succeeding in his mission of becoming one of the world’s greatest actors, all before the age of 25.
Undeniably, there is a palpable silence in the documentary’s decision to actively avoid confronting the mysterious, upsetting facts regarding Ledger’s untimely death. As the film approaches his last role in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, a weight begins to gradually impose itself upon the film, which unfortunately never lifts. In the months after his passing, an international media frenzy sparked concerns of a life filled with questionable choices and drug use, plagued by mental and physical effects due to his intense role as the Joker. Arguably, rumours of narcotics abuse were exactly that – just rumours. But such a tragic, sudden death at the height of an international star’s career (who we are told was perfectly happy) is too strange, something that cannot merely be justified as a sad tale of unfortunate illness. In the documentary, Ledger’s youngest sister states his death was due to exhaustive pneumonia before the film quickly moves forwards in continuing to commemorate the actor’s life and work. It just feels as though Murray and Buitenhuis are deliberately covering up the truth. How could such a vibrant man, in the height of his career, die in such upsetting circumstances? The documentary falters heavily by frustratingly avoiding the viewer’s questions.
Yet, despite the weight of Ledger’s death, it doesn’t wholly distract from the homage the film plays to an incredibly talented, creative soul, who sought art in all areas of his life. For Ledger fans, it provides an intimate portrait of an inspiring creative, revealing insight into an abundance of unseen footage which is well worth the watch. You get the chance to see him at his greatest, his most real, tenderly viewing a man provide light and laughter to all those around him. Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) sharing the influence Ledger had on his song The Wolves (Act 1 & 2) will move you to tears, and you won’t hear the song the same way again, it really is a stunning moment. However, those viewers intent on discovering answers regarding his death will be disappointed. But, please, don’t let that put you off this documentary, which regardless is an important commemoration of the life of a perhaps troubled but deeply inspiring individual. You’ll come away with every intention of honouring Ledger by watching his fantastic performances.
Dir: Derik Murray, Adrian Buitenhuis
Cast: Naomi Watts, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou, Emile Hirsch, Ang Lee, Catherine Hardwicke, Ben Haper, Justin Vernon/Bon Iver
Scr: Hart Snider
Prod: Derik Murray
Run-time: 115 mins
I Am Heath Ledger is available on DVD from 22nd January.