‘Adrianne & the Castle’ Review: A Grieving Man Builds a Shrine to His Late Wife in a Beautiful Documentary About a Love Larger Than Life

“Reality is for those who lack imagination” is one of the many witticisms dispensed by Adrianne Blue Wakefield St. George, the star and subject of Shannon Walsh’s documentary “Adrianne & The Castle” and a woman who also once proclaimed: “I am my own art.” Indeed she was. A gloriously Rubenesque force of nature who appeared to take her fashion and beauty tips from Divine, Adrianne was muse not only to herself but likewise to her adoring husband Alan St. George, who built a castle for — and his entire life around — his beloved wife of 30-plus years.

Now, in the wake of her death almost two decades ago, Alan has become the keeper of his late partner’s story; of Adrianne’s voluminous journals and the extensive collection of home videos Alan shot of her, in addition to “The Day the Queen of Cold Got a Face Lift” and the other floridly titled narrative films films that Adrianne created herself. But the cornerstone of Adrianne’s legacy is undoubtedly Havencrest Castle. Once an unassuming abode on a Midwest hilltop, it now resembles something more akin to the Fantasyland castle at a Disney theme park — swapping out Sleeping Beauty for Adrianne St. George, of course.

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“In our house, architecture is like frozen opera,” Alan explains to Walsh’s constantly roving lens as the camera searches through rooms filled with paintings and statues and clothes and dolls in a floor-to-ceiling shrine to all things Adrianne. “It’s an illusion,” Alan adds. Like a magic trick.” Ironically enough, that magic trick — motivated by Adrianne’s unwavering demand for a larger than life existence — is funded by the international mascot-making company Alan founded over half a century ago, whose notable clients include the Walt Disney Company itself.

Yet with Adrianne around only in spirit now, Alan also admits that he sometimes feels like he’s the ghost in the house, and this is where the heart of Walsh’s film resides. “Adrianne & the Castle” is not just about an eccentric couple who unapologetically pursued their grandiose dreams to the fullest, but also about the profound grief those pursuits left behind in their wake. As Alan, the humble and debonair counterpart to his wife’s extravagant persona, puts it: “Art is never completed, just abandoned.”

So while this unmoored protagonist was still struggling to find meaning outside of Adrianne, Walsh — a filmmaker long focused on humanistic issues ranging from labor rights (2021’s “The Gig is Up”) to loss (2019’s “Illusions of Control”) — reached out to extend her own grieving hand; and broach a novel collaborative approach that would ultimately add another sweet layer to this weird cinematic confection. Together they would cast an actor to play Adrianne, opposite another as a younger version of Alan, and shoot reenactments of pivotal moments from the couple’s shared past. Moments like the mid-‘70s car ride when Alan first spotted his future bride through the window of a city bus and fell in love with her at first sight. Walsh and the surviving St. George would also throw in some musical numbers for their hired thespians to tackle because, well, Adrianne never passed up an opportunity to sing and perform, so what better way to honor such an inspirational diva?

It also turned out to be an exquisite way to capture the abstract essence of these very real soulmates, and Walsh’s approach benefits from her commitment to the bit. While the director sprinkles a handful of nuanced clues to the backstories of her characters, most hard facts and cold answers are left on the cutting room floor — as is the nature of Walsh’s own grief, as her father’s recent death from Covid is only mentioned in the film’s press notes, and not in the film itself. What caused such a charismatic couple, who threw elaborate parties and staged shows for friends and neighbors, to estrange themselves from their families, and why were Alan and Adrianne so insistent on living in their own private Idaho in rural Illinois, exempting themselves from the basic chores of civilization like going to the bank and grocery shopping? (Alan claims to have felt like Rip Van Winkle when he emerged from his Adrianne-centric cocoon, and was especially overwhelmed by Walmart, where one could buy food, guns, and ammo all in the same store.) If we’re not privy to their basic psychology can we really hope to know the St. Georges at all?

The question hangs in the air. Personally, I saw “Adrianne & The Castle” as a queer hetero love story between a female drag queen and her submissive partner, even if that very 21st century assessment feels totally out of sync with the couple’s turn-of-the-20th-century aristocratic lifestyle. And yet the ambiguity of Walsh’s film is also the greatest strength of the intoxicating story it tells in such intimate and specific detail, a story whose moral is to throw such mundane thinking aside and embrace the higher truth that love conquers all — doubt and death alike.

Grade: A-

“Adrianne & the Castle” premiered at SXSW 2024. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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