‘I Am Heath Ledger’ offers rare footage of late actor, but little personal insight

Karin Catt/Fathom Events/Courtesy
"I Am Heath Ledger" | Network Entertainment
Grade: B-

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When great talents pass away far too soon, their lives and the circumstances of their passing tend to become points of cultural obsession. Few celebrities have the same hold on the public as Heath Ledger, though, and the close proximity of his tragic passing in 2008 with his darkest role as the Joker in “The Dark Knight” only adds to the intrigue.

While any correlation between Ledger’s passing and his powerhouse turn as the Clown Prince of Crime has been debunked on numerous occassions, Network Entertainment’s documentary “I Am Heath Ledger” affirms that the public’s fascination with Ledger is deserved. The film paints a picture of the creativity that propelled him to greatness, even as it stumbles in creating a personal connection between the audience and its subject.

Early in the film, musician Ben Harper says of the documentary, “this is not something that’s supposed to be happening now,” as if its examination of the late actor will delve too deeply into some personal realm of emotional scar tissue, where memories too precious to share with an audience hide.

Directors Adrian Buitenhuis and Derik Murray attempt to reach such a realm, but the film will disappoint audiences seeking personal insight that Ledger’s Wikipedia page cannot provide.

More often than not, the film merely narrates Ledger’s life, rather than putting audiences in his shoes. Ledger’s early days as a youngster fleeing Perth, Australia, for Sydney transition into his early days in Hollywood without much feeling. His early successes in films like “10 Things I Hate About You” and “A Knight’s Tale” aren’t presented as astounding triumphs, but rather mere points of interest on a narrative map.

As the film progresses, Ledger’s personal struggles following his split from actress Michelle Williams aren’t conveyed like the crushing emotional low that it was for him — we only get a surface-level understanding of how that event changed and affected him.

Despite the film’s overall inability to illuminate the personal corners of Ledger’s life, interviews with his family and close friends such as Harper, Naomi Watts, Ang Lee and Ben Mendelsohn do give it some depth. In particular, one scene with Harper soars with heart and the sense of emotion that the rest of the film struggles to find.

In the scene, Harper recounts how Ledger gifted him a grand piano, but asked him to write a lullaby for Ledger’s newborn daughter. Harper then performs the lullaby, at once showing the deep connections Ledger formed with those close to him and what kind of father he was. Such moments, though rare, truly demonstrate an individual’s connection to Ledger, rather than telling about it.

By far, though, the most affecting and insightful aspect of the film is the inclusion of home video that Ledger shot, which becomes the audience’s most tangible emotional connection to him. We learn that he always carried a camera with him, filming everything he could out of a constant need to exercise his creativity, a habit which ultimately became his personal film school. He often points the camera at himself, capturing the abundant energy that his friends gush about throughout the film.

In one long scene, Ledger takes us on a journey through a hotel, transforming its mundane hallways into a James Bond movie set. It’s no wonder that Ledger always believed himself to be a director at heart.

When “I Am Heath Ledger” closes, we find ourselves once more processing the loss of such a talent, this time through the lenses of those that knew him best. Seeing their grief uncovers the sense of loss that the nine years since Ledger’s passing have more or less interred.

As Bon Iver’s “Perth” — a song inspired by Ledger’s passing — plays in the background, it is hard not to feel emotional about the great actor’s legacy, and the directorial career that was just waiting to emerge. Shortcomings aside, “I Am Heath Ledger” still succeeds in honoring the life of a great artist and a better human being.

“I Am Heath Ledger” premieres on Spike TV on May 17 at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

Harrison Tunggal covers film. Contact him at [email protected].