review

The Regime review: Kate Winslet’s political satire lacks bite

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
3 Min Read
The Regime stars Kate Winslet as a Central European dictator.
The Regime stars Kate Winslet as a Central European dictator. Credit: HBO/Binge

The Regime bills itself as a satirical comedy, but it is seldom funny - not laugh-out-loud funny anyway.

Starring Kate Winslet and created by Succession writer Will Tracy, The Regime’s critique of despots, dictators and dysfunction isn’t subtle, but its absurdism rarely rises above a wry chuckle.

Its story of an autocratic leader of an unnamed Central European country doesn’t offer any insights into the nature of power and corruption that recent projects (Veep, The Death of Stalin and, even Succession) haven’t already done, and better.

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When Donald Trump came to power during Veep, there was a legitimate discussion as to whether satire can still bite when reality is more farcical than anything a writer can pen. It can, but they now have to be razor sharp. The Regime’s writing sometimes stings but it draws no blood.

But with a fantastically arch performance from Winslet and her co-stars, The Regime is still entertaining and diverting. It’s just not the punchy comedy you hoped it would be.

The Regime stars Kate Winslet as a Central European dictator.
The Regime starts streaming on March 4. Credit: HBO/Binge

Winslet plays Elena Vernham, a chancellor who begins her televised public addresses by calling her citizens, “my loves”. She projects an air of maternalism with a patriotic pride that promises great things for her people.

Her hair is perfectly coiffed, and she projects power with her cream, royal blue or emerald wardrobe. But beneath, there’s turmoil and anxiety.

With trade sanctions in place and an economy on the brink, Elena’s position is tenuous. The country only has one resource of any value (cobalt) and negotiating rates with buyers is troublesome. Of course, an autocrat that’s threatened is one prone to even more grandiose and dangerous moves.

A former doctor, she’s a hypochondriac about mould in the opulent palace she calls home. Multiple dehumidifiers litter every room to the point that newcomers are warned to over-moisturise.

She recruits a soldier famed for shooting at and killing protesters, Zubak (Matthia Schoenaerts), to be her advance guard against mould. That basically involves him walking ahead of her with an implement measuring the humidity levels.

Soon, the two become entangled in an odd co-dependency to the point that he begins to dictate policy objectives, including land reform that would see property ownership redistributed from the privileged to the poor.

The Regime stars Kate Winslet as a Central European dictator.
Matthias Schoenaerts as Zubak, a soldier that ingratiates himself in the chancellor’s inner circle. Credit: HBO/Binge

This, of course, horrifies the interchangeable bureaucrats in grey suits who have enriched themselves. But everyone is trying to thread a very small needle. They fear her as much as they are contemptuous of her, but they’re still always plotting, plotting, plotting.

Winslet balances all the contradictions within Elena with mastery. The character can be blustery and also frighteningly confident. She can be goofy (karaoke night was cringe) but also terrifying in how easily she humiliates anyone who falls out of favour.

In Winslet’s hands, Elena and all her poor choices – “annexing” its neighbour, for one – becomes beguiling rather than repellent. As heightened as she is, the character is oddly believable. Like her real-world counterparts (unfortunately, so many in our current moment), Elena’s megalomania is underpinned by crippling self-doubt and skin so thin it’s brittle.

All the performances are quite good, including Schoenaerts as the volatile and destructive Zubak, Andrea Riseborough as palace manager Agnes and Hugh Grant pops in for one episode as Elena’s predecessor.

But with an uneven tone and the feeling that it should’ve gone 40 per cent harder, The Regime is amusing rather than exceptional.

The Regime premieres on Binge on Monday, March 4

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