Review: Brilliantly acted, HBO's 'Regime' flirts with satire but lacks political bite


“Regime,” premiering Sunday on HBO, is a well-made, beautifully designed, marvelously acted mess of a series. Created by Will Tracy, a writer for “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” and directed by Stephen Frears, it stars Kate Winslet as the head of a contemporary unnamed fictional Middle European country — like Ruritania in “The Prisoner of Zenda” or Syldavia in Tintin or Zubrowka in “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” if less charming. Her title is Chancellor, though the palace appointments are ostentatiously royal. Like a monarch, she is identified with the state, and like an absolute monarch, she identifies the state with herself. (But the state is not in great shape.)

It’s a comedy, if often a grim, violent one — until it’s not.

Like real-world autocrats, Winslet’s Elena Vernham is a person to tiptoe around and agree with. And mentally unstable. She believes the palace is infected with mold and is having it rebuilt. She demands that no one breathe in her direction, finding the smell intolerable. She converses with the corpse of her father, apparently a chancellor before her, rotting away in a glass coffin. (“Silly old husk. You’ve got spots now. That’s new.”) She delivers long daily radio addresses and sings pop songs to captive audiences. (Winslet’s rendition of Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now” is expertly off-key.)

Into the palace and her life comes Corporal Herbert Zubak (Matthias Schoenaerts), called “Butcher” to his displeasure, a soldier involved in a massacre of protesting miners, who has been more or less abducted to the palace to serve as Elena’s latest mold-monitor. He walks ahead of her with a hydrometer to measure the relative humidity of any space she’s about to enter. Zubak is a volatile person, violent against others and himself, cowed into a ridiculous, demeaning position. But when he foils an assassination attempt, Zubak becomes Elena’s protector, physician (using “potato steam” to “clear toxins”), soil-serving caterer and a Rasputin-like influence that shapes the government — or court, one might more readily say.

Tracy has sampled various autocratic regimes, current and past, in creating his imaginary nation. The generic imperialism of Elena’s late father’s dream of “reunification” with a neighboring republic, which she terms “an expression of peace and love toward our countrymen across the border,” easily calls to mind Russia vis-à-vis the Ukraine, or China vis-à-vis Taiwan. Zubak’s desire to redistribute land to the peasantry and his elevation of rural culture is the stuff of many if not most revolutions. But these are passing incidents among many; we also get Hugh Grant as an imprisoned predecessor and Martha Plimpton as a Clintonesque visitor from the United States, attempting to sort out a deal for the country’s cobalt — its only product apart from sugar beets. It may be that there’s too much going on over too many hours for “The Regime” to effectively register as satire; the references never quite turn into targets.

If satire is even the point. For all the political filigree, “The Regime” boils down to a love story of sorts between Elena and Herbert, and the stripped gears of their shifting power dynamic. He’s under her spell, then she’s under his, then they’re in therapy together, with myriad variations as political circumstances evolve improbably around them.

Elena sees herself as a loving person — one can take her temperature by whom she addresses as “my love” at any point, and “love” is a word much employed through the series — but she’s casually dismissive, even abusive, to those around her, including her French husband, Nicolas (Guillaume Gallienne), busying himself with a network of poetry centers; the various ministers who attempt to handle her by indulging her; and the palace manager, Agnes (Andrea Riseborough), the only consistently sympathetic character in the whole of the series. (Elena has taken Agnes’ young son, Oskar, played by Louis Mynett, as her own; she calls it “co-parenting.”)

Winslet somehow makes whole a character whose hallmark is her capriciousness, as, under successive influences or inspirations, she adopts one persona after another. Under changing fortunes she goes from blithe to desperate. (The evolving cut of her clothing is a good touch.) As Zubak, Schoenaerts is almost too effective, a frightening presence who becomes intermittently sympathetic as a person in over his head, whose animal brutality is effective only to a point, and whose cracked advice Elena follows and whose practical advice she ignores. But as the series goes on, changing its spots, the fate of its protagonists becomes less compelling and (within a range of unpredictability) more obvious; the comedy fades and one disinvests from the drama.

It’s a sum that’s less than its disparate parts. But I did like the parts.



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