Kate Winslet Is Riotous in ‘The Regime’

Kate Winslet is the reigning queen of the HBO miniseries. She redefined an iconic heroine in Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce and disappeared behind the grimace of an embattled small-town detective in Mare of Easttown, earning Emmys for both roles. And she may well win a third for her astute portrayal of the fragile, eccentric demagogue at the center of HBO’s The Regime.

Yet because it is a black comedy, rather than a weighty drama, the funny, brilliantly executed but thematically undercooked six-part series, premiering March 3, represents a major departure from her most celebrated work. A delusional right-wing kleptocrat who believes she’s a champion of the people, Winslet’s Chancellor Elena Vernham presides over a fictional Central European nation from within the walls of a former grand hotel she “requisitioned” as her own personal Versailles, growing increasingly paranoid as her country’s economy falters. Showrunner Will Tracy (Succession, The Menu) has made a careful study of the 21st century authoritarian. Like Marine Le Pen, Elena is a daughter desperate to triumph where her ideologue father failed. Like Vladimir Putin, she’s a restless expansionist. Like Donald Trump, she speaks constantly of love but thrives on hatred. And like so many dictators, past and present, she’s petrified of pathogens—in her case, mold.

Enter Herbert Zubak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a fanatical pro-Vernham soldier whose exploits have earned him the nickname Butcher, who is conscripted to keep Elena safe from spores by following her around with a humidity meter. As her neuroses erode her relationships with a passive husband (Guillaume Gallienne) and all but her most sycophantic advisers, Zubak becomes her confidant. And his genuine populism, which prescribes radical land redistribution and, er, a diet that includes rural dirt, threatens to destroy the regime’s lucrative relationship with the West.

Tracy keeps the abrupt political realignments coming, as Winslet, equipped with a lisping, upper-crust accent and gamely leading deranged musical numbers, pivots fluidly from hysterical hypochondriac to tyrannical alpha, hopeless romantic to malignant narcissist. The other performances are excellent as well, from Schoenarts’ energetic turn as a rugged maniac to a supporting cast that includes Hugh Grant and Andrea Riseborough. Quippy dialogue features many great Veep-esque insults (“mewling vulva,” “Our Lady of the Shrinking GDP”). Most inspired of all is Kave Quin’s production design, which fuses the aesthetics of fascism with Elena’s unique foibles to craft an utterly convincing backdrop to her breakdown. At one point she’s carried aloft in a sort of luxury popemobile. When Zubak prescribes potato steam to treat her mysterious ailment, dozens of golden vessels heating heaps of tubers appear in the palace.

The Regime is a lot of skillfully produced fun, but it never delivers the shrewd political commentary its premise could support. It’s less a satire than a farce—more The Menu than Succession. Observations about global capitalism, far-right hypocrisy, and American and Chinese imperialism remain under-developed, as do some secondary characters whose scenes never get a chance to become full-fledged story lines. By all means, give Winslet another Emmy. If only Tracy’s ambition matched that of his star. 

Kate Winslet Is Riotous in 'The Regime'

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