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*** (out of five)
I Am Heath Ledger is a cinematic portrait of Ledger the artist. Devoid of gossip and any hint of salaciousness, it will disappoint the TMZ crowd but should prove rich for film students, particularly those of the art of screen acting. It is so tasteful and craft-oriented that, even though Naomi Watts is one of the prominent interview subjects, no mention is made of her and Ledger’s love affair. Nor is any image shown of Ledger with an alcoholic beverage, a joint or in any state of mind other than alert and engaged. His death is dealt with quickly, at the end, after a single mention of “demons”, a reference to an “unravelling”, and a few nods to his insomnia.
So dispel thoughts of getting any “dirt” and revel instead in the actor, director, sometime visual artist and constant photographer and videographer. Ledger was obsessed with cameras and he shot massive volumes of footage, including enormous amounts of himself. While this may seem vainglorious, one of the most intriguing reveals of the film is footage of Ledger essentially using his camcorder to teach himself screen technique; he tries every angle, every facial expression, and, charmingly and amusingly, does so with generic genre movie lines – here’s a disaster face, a super-villain smirk, a panicked stare.
Like the cellphone footage shot by Amy Winehouse’s friends that made Amy (2015) so revolutionary, this trove of Ledger’s own recordings gives us an intimacy that previous generations of film biographers could only dream of. In the future all bio-docs will look like this, and with Snapchat and Facebook posts and tweets galore (the camcorder grain of a lot of Ledger’s footage looks practically VHS-level, especially when shot at night or in dark rooms, which is often). It’s a little disconcerting, being this close to someone who you’ve known almost entirely through their actual silver screen performances (Ledger was not big on gossipy publicity), but the movie gives way, after the first act, to many more interviews with Ledger’s best friends, closest colleagues and immediate family (minus his daughter and ex-wife but including his parents and siblings). It proceeds methodically to work its way through his small but incredible filmography, only missing The Order (2003), The Brothers Grimm and Casanova (both 2005) and, disappointingly, Candy (2006). All his other important work is examined, with clips and discussion and, when possible, audio from Ledger himself, presumably culled from contemporaneous radio interviews.
The result is refreshing, insightful, and also devastatingly sad. I was tense and upset from the opening frames, knowing that the bright, sunny Perth boy on screen was destined to die before reaching his thirties (he died in early 2008 at 28). Later, in my car after the film, I cried, taking myself by total surprise. He was some kind of magic, and deserving of this respectful, if hagiographic, biography.