‘The Regime’ Review: Kate Winslet Commands as Sweet-Talking but Cruel Dictator in HBO Limited Series

The deeply dark, cynical satirical drama evokes real-life atrocities for jokes, terror and pathos — often all at once

Matthias Schoenaerts and Kate Winslet in "The Regime." (HBO)

“The Regime” sets a lot of fires. It’s a deeply dark, cynical piece of satirical drama that evokes real-life atrocities for jokes, terror and pathos — oftentimes all at once. And while the flames may be compelling to stare at, they don’t attain a revelatory meaning until the kindling is examined closer.

Chancellor Elena Vernham (Kate Winslet) is the authoritarian leader of a fictional Central European nation. She’s fashionable but fearsome, sweet-talking but cruel-acting. And she has a new obsession: Herbert Zubak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a soldier-turned-pariah who recently played a key role in the death of some protestors. Despite the grievances of her cabinet — a bit of a pattern for the Chancellor — Vernham brings Zubak aboard as a kind of enforcer-valet. Their newfound relationship causes surprising sparks that threaten to irrevocably upset the entire regime.

Now, a reasonably informed adult is already potently aware of the atrocities occurring around us. Many of the geopolitically-minded elucidations offered by “The Regime” are pitched too broadly to elicit anything other than recognition. Corrupt politicians spin populist talking points while greedily favoring power over truth? Yeah, man, we know — and as much as Alexandre Desplat’s insistently comedic, cartoonishly Eastern European score bangs “novel absurdism” over our head, the minor key melody numbs in familiarity. Put another way: Contemporary history’s defining meme is a dog in a house fire saying “This is fine.” To depict a house on fire while saying “This isn’t fine” doesn’t do much to cut through the noise.

Where “The Regime” starts to soar is in the personal. Some of Chancellor Vernham’s psychological motivations border on trite (daddy issues abound), but many of the creative team’s other theories on what makes dictators tick play with intriguing, upsetting curiosity. The word “love” is thrown around a lot in the six-episode miniseries, but not just between individuals who love each other. Vernham continuously addresses the people she rules — viciously, with no remorse over their suffering and death — as her “loves.” When conflicts arise, she insists that all she needs is to be seen by her public, that their mutual love will patch all wounds. This is not only the playbook for a romantic abuser, but a sharp assessment of how authoritarian leaders keep power by shattering and conflating boundaries. Love bombing before literal bombing, you could say.

As for the actual lovelife of Chancellor Vernham, she and Zubak are engaged in a series-long tango wrought with unpredictable passion. While the posh and purposefully oblivious Vernham has a kind of trophy husband for her subjects to admire (Guillaume Gallienne, one of the show’s rare centers of empathy), she’s simultaneously infatuated with and repulsed by Zubak. Where Vernham keeps her hands sheathed from direct action, Zubak’s are constantly covered in blood and bruises. Where Vernham knows how to placate the elites with conversational magic, Zubak can barely eke out a sentence without his veins popping. And where Vernham is desperate to keep the status quo, Zubak is desperate to change.

In this basic, human-to-human relationship, showrunner Will Tracy (“Succession,” “The Menu”) and his impeccable actors captivate with all kinds of heat. It’s where his plate-spinning coheres into one fluid motion, an interrogation of gender, class, and power that summarizes the queasy relationship between a person and their dysfunctional government better than any didactic piece of “political drama.”

Kate Winslet and Guillaume Gallienne in “The Regime.” (HBO)

Speaking of impeccable actors: The show’s bench runs deep. Winslet, just one Tony away from the EGOT, delivers work marked by equal parts technique and impulse. Her Chancellor tries her best to be a chameleon; there’s a Vernham on TV, a Vernham with her cabinet, a Vernham with a political enemy, and so on. These versions are all, in some way, an inauthentic performance, and Winslet is canny enough to let us in ever so, her lip curling and curious speech pattern betraying a bitter core. But beyond these well-constructed performance strategies, Winslet allows a bit of an animalistic “freak flag” to fly, jumping at some unflatteringly raw material in unprecedented, jaw-dropping ways.

Zubak is also at war with himself, but he’s a lot worse at hiding it. So Schoenaerts, who anchored the sensitively-rendered “The Mustang” in 2019, contorts his body inward and outward, deepening, rather than resolving, the inevitable schism. Tracy’s material sometimes paints the actor into performatively lurid corners (at one point in the first episode, Zubak literally grunts to himself, “Kill yourself! Kill yourself!”), but Schoenaerts is always seeking the truth, and usually finds it.

The rest of the thespians fill out the world exceptionally, often giving an audience a cathartic voice of reason among the chaos and doublespeak of Vernham and Zubak’s psychosexual cold war. Andrea Riseborough, who starred in the tonally similar “The Death of Stalin,” is heartbreaking, allowing a primal vulnerability about her son’s fate to crack through a steely façade (and an underwritten storyline). Martha Plimpton and Hugh Grant show up and knock their material beyond the park, with Plimpton acing the mannerisms of a hypocritical American politician and Grant plumbing tragicomic depths to devastating consequences.

Martha Plimpton in “The Regime.” (HBO)

And a special shoutout must be paid to the trio of Danny Webb (“Sherlock”), David Bamber (“A Very English Scandal”) and Henry Goodman (“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”). These three play Vernham’s main advisors, and must navigate the objective truths of their situation’s increasing precariousness with the objective lunacy of their boss. While you never quite feel anything other than genuine disgust for Vernham, these three find enough nuance in their characters to make you uncomfortably wonder about your own culpability, duty and self-interest.

For those who want an entertaining, tonally adventurous miniseries to sink your teeth into, “The Regime” is well worth a watch. Its instrumentation may be brash and its conclusions may be pre-drawn (especially with a finale that’s regrettably functional), but when it gets to the blackened heart of the matter, its sour pleasures pulverize the senses into thrilling, dissonant submission.

“The Regime” premieres Sunday, March 3, on HBO.


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