I Am Heath Ledger (2017)

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Image via tribecafilm.com

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This inoffensive hagiography of Australian actor Heath Ledger gathers handfuls of his family and friends to tell us what a good bloke he was. Combined with home movie footage shot by Heath, who obsessively documented his life, we build a picture of a talented young man with a generous heart and an unchecked manic energy that more or less guaranteed he would burn brightly but not for long. He died at age 28 of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. 

From early footage of him, it’s clear that Ledger was a charismatic and talented man with a strong curiosity for life. Although often racked with self-doubt while making films, his bravado and ability to learn and hone his craft saw him leap from one opportunity to another, each one bigger or bolder or more challenging. He was not afraid to take risks, advising his friends to go for the big waves, to not be afraid to fall.

Many of the people who speak about him are famous – Ben Harper, Naomi Watts, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou, Ang Lee, Catherine Hardwicke. They are superlative in their praise, Ben Harper particularly, who makes Ledger out to be a saint and the most talented person on the planet. His family and friends emphasise what a kind and generous person he was. No one has a bad word to say about him but there are occasions where we can read between the lines.

The breakdown of his marriage to Michelle Williams is glossed over quickly and rationalised as him just not being able to prioritise time with her and their baby Matilda. It’s clear that Ledger was obsessive about his own art, whether it was acting, directing music videos, taking photos or constantly documenting his life. For someone who seems to have been humble, he always had a clear idea of his importance in the world.

Several people said that he barely slept and would appear on their doorstep at 5:30 or 6 in the morning, gatecrashing their breakfasts to talk about a new idea that had come to him in the night. We can see that he would not have been a great father nor partner. For all his charm, you wonder at the narcissism that continually elevated his own ideas and pursuits above all others with such urgency.

Tellingly, perhaps, Williams is absent from the film, as is Ledger’s girlfriend at the time of his death, Mary Kate Olsen. His drug use is touched upon but framed simply as a solution to chronic insomnia. The autopsy report found he had xycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam and doxylamine in his system, which includes anti-anxiety drugs, painkillers and sleeping aids, and suggests death due to a long build up rather than a binge. Is this another example of a man unable to recognise his own frailty, pushed to achieve and unable to accept help?

As I am writing this review, waiting in the dimness of a cinema for my next film to start, a trailer for an upcoming film about Emily Dickinson is playing (A Quiet Passion). The first line from her best known poem seems particularly resonant to Ledger’s story:

Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me.

Currently in limited release


Have you seen this film? Let me know what you thought of it in the comments below.

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