‘The Regime’ Review: Kate Winslet Wows in HBO’s New Political Satire

Kate Winslet's cracking comedic performance is reason enough to watch the new miniseries.

Kate Winslet stars in The Regime. Photograph by Miya Mizuno/HBO

A cutting political satire with a twisted romance at its center, The Regime makes for an enjoyably odd miniseries. In its best moments, the show feels reminiscent of Veep—albeit through the lens of an aggressively autocratic government—with Kate Winslet turning in a performance that would leave Selina Meyer speechless. There are times when it could be a tad sharper, and a few too many jokes and jabs rely on sexism (which stands out as lazy compared to the rest of the show’s elevated writing), but The Regime really takes off when it leans into its political farce.

Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter

By clicking submit, you agree to our <a rel="nofollow noreferer" href="http://observermedia.com/terms">terms of service</a> and acknowledge we may use your information to send you emails, product samples, and promotions on this website and other properties. You can opt out anytime.

See all of our newsletters

The show takes place in a fictional, unnamed country in the hilariously vague “Middle Europe.” It’s close to Germany, has a pastiche of cultural practices, and its main exports are cobalt and sugarbeets. The nation is led by Chancellor Elena Vernham (Kate Winslet), a hypochondriac of the highest order who’s more than happy to be sealed off in her massive palace and make nationally significant decisions on a whim. Lately, she’s obsessed with the idea that mold has crept into every corner of the estate, initiating a full-scale remodel while requiring a right hand man to measure the humidity of every room she enters. That man is Herbert Zubak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a corporal known as “butcher” by many for his role in putting down a protest in one of the country’s outer districts. Slowly but surely, his rural ways win over Elena, who grows obsessed with the hulking army man. Together, their political visions put the country on the brink of war, invite crippling economic sanctions, and even cultivate a dependence on boiled potatoes.

Matthias Schoenaerts and Kate Winslet in The Regime. Photograph by Miya Mizuno/HBO

The nation’s near-downfall occurs in the span of a year, chronicled over six episodes. A few feature voices from outside the palace walls, like Martha Plimpton’s exacting U.S. Senator (great) and Hugh Grant’s opposition leader (underwhelming), but much of the show takes place in the Chancellor’s stately halls. There are advisors who fall on different parts of the people-pleasing spectrum, with some serving as yes-men until the very end and others jumping ship (or being forced to walk the plank). Then there’s Elena’s husband, the perfectly pathetic poet Nicky (Guillaume Gallienne), and trusted palace manager Agnes (Andrea Riseborough), who co-parents her son with the childless chancellor. It’s a strange mix of the personal and the political, but with much of Elena’s fragile identity tied to the idea of her being the perfect ruler, it makes sense.

As Elena, Winslet gives one of her most memorable performances in years. A deeply insecure tyrant whose petty demands reign supreme, she’s the kind of character that gives the actress a chance to really go for it. There are a few blips and beats of just how big Elena’s ego can be, and the first episode features an extended live song from the chancellor that feels like it would be at home in an old SNL episode. As things get more dire, her indecision is an art in and of itself. It’s fascinatingly funny work, unlike anything Winslet has done before, and the sole drawback is that it only lasts a half-dozen episodes.

Schoenaerts, as the other side of this dictatorial coin, delivers a decidedly different vibe. Herbert is a tough nut to crack, from his violent outbursts and political dreams to his clear naivete in dealing with powerful people. The complexities of the character don’t always coalesce (his seemingly Eastern European accent is a strange sticking point), but the actor’s intensity adds a layer of truth to the outlandish circumstances. Plus, he and Winslet have some true chemistry, making their toxic relationship quite juicy to watch.

The Regime is at its best when it accepts its absurdism wholeheartedly, be it Herbert rubbing mustard on Elena’s chest for her health or the chancellor insisting that fringe protests are actually the product of CIA-backed performance art. There are plenty of clever winks at the modern political landscape, with empty, baseless talking points becoming the backbone of party ideology rather than real action. Elena’s refusal to engage in reality feels all too poignant, and these quips about western influence and the liberal elite are sure to elicit a few chuckles.

At the same time, though, the satire can feel a bit empty. Some jokes don’t go beyond parroting a Fox News headline, content to just point out the absurdity rather than truly dig into it. The show has good points about what happens when we identify with a leader too strongly, a salient topic for a world increasingly run by personalities rather than politicians, but that’s not always the avenue it’s most interested in exploring. As a political satire, The Regime is sure to make you laugh, but it might not make you think.

The first episode of ‘The Regime’ premieres March 3rd on Max.

‘The Regime’ Review: Kate Winslet Wows in HBO’s New Political Satire