Kate Winslet reigns over The Regime

April 21, 2024

The limited series featuring six episodes is a thrilling satire of power and politics

Kate Winslet reigns over The Regime


hen Chancellor Elena Vernham (Kate Winslet) addresses the citizens of her unnamed Central European country, she doesn’t sound like a politician. “My loves,” she coos in a plummy, posh accent, further softened by a hint of a lisp. “I bless you all, and I bless our love. Always.” Seven years into her reign, this signoff suggests that Vernham has transcended the role of head of state, or even autocratic strongwoman. The propaganda videos she records from her palace, a luxury hotel turned personal residence, are closer to guided meditations than ideological sermons. The relationship between this ruler and her subjects, Vernham seems to believe, is more intimate and emotional than mere governance.

Before creating “The Regime,” the six-episode HBO series set in Vernham’s impenetrable echo chamber, writer Will Tracy worked on “Succession.” (Tracy also co-wrote the fine dining satire “The Menu” with Seth Reiss, who executive produces “The Regime.”) Just as Logan Roy was a composite of various IRL oligarchs, Vernham can’t be traced to any single inspiration. Like Vladimir Putin, she’s a germaphobe whose self-imposed isolation has intensified her paranoia. Like Marine Le Pen, she lives in the shadow of her late father, a fringe figure whose far-right party she’s taken mainstream. Vernham even takes after fictional characters like George Orwell’s Big Brother, railing against a left-wing predecessor she positions as a scapegoat á la Emmanuel Goldstein.

“Succession” creator Jesse Armstrong honed his comic skills under “Veep” creator Armando Iannucci, whose influence looms large over “The Regime.” Like the scrambling apparatchiks of his film “The Death of Stalin,” Vernham’s deputies form a Greek chorus of yes men poorly suited to reality checks or dissent. Tracy’s scripts also share the floridly creative approach to profanity that unites these works, as when Vernham claims a local farming district smells like “a hog’s urethra.” But as presented by directors Stephen Frears and Jessica Hobbs, the world of “The Regime” is more surreal than those of its comic ancestors. Cut off from her constituents, Vernham’s ego acts as a reality distortion field. (When she experiences menopausal hot flashes, everyone else has to act like they aren’t freezing cold.) Conventional logic no longer applies.

We first meet Vernham through the eyes of her newest employee: Colonel Zubak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a soldier with rage issues whose role in subduing a protest has earned him the unsavory nickname “The Butcher.” As a reward for his loyalty, Vernham summons Zubak to the palace and tasks him with measuring the surrounding humidity at all times, trailing her with a handheld device like a sunken-eyed guard dog. Convinced that fungus-borne toxins are poisoning the air, Vernham has turned into a more sinister version of Julianne Moore’s ailing housewife in “Safe.” In her broadcasts, the Chancellor is the picture of soothing authority, a metaphorical mother to the nation; when the cameras are off, she huffs oxygen from a tank, orders the palace ripped down to the studs and has servants carry her in a transparent cocoon. Vernham claims to prize “a graceful mind,” another one of her cult-like turns of phrase. But Zubak arrives to a house — and, by implication, mind — in disarray.

Winslet has already established a foothold in TV with “Mare of Easttown,” the grim crime drama that won her an Emmy for playing its namesake in 2021. But where “Mare” called for the kind of ostentatiously unglamorous performance that gets movie stars acclaim for dimming their wattage, “The Regime” makes full use of Winslet’s commanding charisma. Vernham is coldly commanding in one scene, blithely oblivious in the next, and beneath it all, an overgrown child in constant need of validation and direction. She gets both from Zubak, who quickly enters Vernham’s inner circle by seeing her as she wants to be seen: a literal guiding light, divorced from any tangible policy. “Without her, nothing makes sense,” Zubak shouts in a meeting ostensibly dedicated to military strategy.

The Regime” is not devoid of political commentary. The show is especially skeptical toward American foreign policy, highlighting how global superpowers use smaller countries as client states whether or not they align with democratic values. (Vernham’s relationship with Uncle Sam only sours when she jeopardizes her patrons’ access to valuable cobalt mines.) But “The Regime” favors an abstraction that can come at the expense of its real-world insight. There are strong hints of blood-and-soil nationalism in Zubak’s calls for land reform, jingoistic expansion and protectionism around sugar beets grown “from our land,” even as crowd scenes show a multiracial populace with no hint of ethnic division. Zubak has a thick, if generic, European accent. At first, there seems to be a pointed contrast between this common man and the upper-crust English tone of Vernham and her associates — until we meet a union leader and some rural children who sound exactly like them.

The effect is to take focus away from the material aspects of authoritarianism and toward its psychological ones, just as “The Menu” pivoted from a spoof of a specific subculture to a broader allegory about artists and their audience. “The Regime” has a keen eye for the aesthetics of fascism, from an absurd woman-of-the-people photoshoot in a cabbage patch to Eurovisionesque extra-vaganzas. (Yes, Winslet does sing.) Just because these spectacles are laughably tacky doesn’t mean they’re without menace. Between Vernham and Zubak, there’s a canny use of infatuation as a metaphor for a cult of personality. “They’re born into pain, so you turn their pain into anger and use their anger as a cudgel,” says one of the few characters willing to criticize Vernham to her face. With Zubak, we get to see this macro phenomenon play out in miniature.

As Vernham’s delusion deepens and grip on her people starts to slip, she endangers more than just herself. Human satellites orbit her like the sun. Her husband Nicky (Guillaume Gallienne) is a happy accessory, and one of the few people who knew Vernham before and outside of her career in politics. (Both spouses used to be medical doctors, making Vernham’s descent into hypochondria and quack medicine all the more striking.) Her housekeeper and nanny Agnes (Andrea Riseborough) is initially unflappable, but quickly grows concerned as the caretaker of Vernham’s epileptic son. “The Regime” is hardest to watch when it depicts those, like Agnes and her young charge, who haven’t enthusiastically attached themselves to Vernham out of selfish ambition or misguided belief. Luckily, Vernham has walled herself off so completely that more sympathetic struggles rarely intrude.

Courtesy: Variety

Kate Winslet reigns over The Regime