Review: 'The Regime' drifts clumsily and calamitously into incoherence

Kate Winslet can do anything, but try as she might, she can't save "The Regime."

March 1, 2024, 4:21 AM

Kate Winslet can do anything! But try as she might, Winslet can't save "The Regime" -- the six-part HBO cable series streams March 3 on Max -- from its worst excesses.

"The Regime" wants so much to be a knockabout political satire on par with "Veep" and the flame-throwing comedy of Armando Iannucci ("In the Loop," "The Death of Stalin"), but wishing won't make it so.

Despite a dynamo showrunner in Will Tracy, a writer on "Succession," "The Menu" and "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" (love them all), and two director powerhouses in Stephen Frears ("The Queen") and Jessica Hobbs ("The Crown") "The Regime" drifts clumsily and calamitously into incoherence as the jokes fall flat enough to crush anything in their path.

All except for Winslet, who pretends she's dispensing delicious bon mots as Elena Vernham, the chancellor of a fictional, unnamed, middle-European country. She addresses the dirty poor who cheer outside her balcony as "my loves," but develops a lisp in their presence, preferring the company of her monster of a father, whose corpse she keeps in a glass casket.

PHOTO: Kate Winslet appears in a scene from the HBO series "The Regime."
Kate Winslet appears in a scene from the HBO series "The Regime."
Miya Mizuno/HBO

Winslet plays the dictatorial Elena like a voluptuous, menopausal, germaphobic Eva Peron, who will happily serenade her people with a hilariously off-key version of Chicago's "If You Leave Me Now," while threatening to crush them under her literal and figurative high heels.

The delusional Elena, a medical doctor, lives in constant fear of the mold she insists has penetrated the walls of her palace (the series was shot in Vienna's Schönbrunn and Liechtenstein castles). To that end, she assigns a series of assistants to follow her around measuring pollution levels and executing spores.

The latest and toughest in the doomed bunch is Corporal Herbert Zubeck (a reliably fine Matthias Schoenaerts), known as the Butcher of Site 5 for his brutal solutions for civilian insurrection. In a weird turn, the soldier and the dictator develop feelings for each other.

This new controlling presence wreaks havoc on the chancellor's staff, her French husband (Guillaume Gallienne), and palace manager Agnes ("To Leslie" Oscar nominee Andrea Riseborough), who loans out her own son (Louie Mynett) when the boss wants to play mother.

PHOTO: Hugh Grant appears in a scene from the HBO series "The Regime."
Hugh Grant appears in a scene from the HBO series "The Regime."
Miya Mizuno/HBO

Terrific actors keep showing up, including a sassy Martha Plimpton as a Hillary-esque U.S. secretary of state with her eye on Elena's cobalt supply, and the always-welcome Hugh Grant as the imprisoned Navalny-like leader of the opposition to Elena's Putin in skirts.

What a shame this top-tier cast falls victim to a series that can't find a consistent tone. The final episode defines the term, all over the place. The score by the Oscar-winning Alexandre Desplat ("The Grand Budapest Hotel") keeps hitting a note of jangling, irritating whimsy that belies the anger simmering underneath.

Winslet won a pair of Emmys for two superb HBO projects, "Mare of Easttown" and "Mildred Pierce." But the mix of farce and fire that "The Regime" requires eludes her. Julia Louis-Dreyfus won six consecutive Emmys for doing just that in "Veep," but Winslet deserves credit for searching out unexpected humanity in a character too easily reduced to a cartoon.

This British Oscar winner is always raring to go and she gives her all to this absurdist comic send-up of the growing plague of authoritarian rule from Donald Trump to China's Xi Jinping. But it's an uphill battle for Winslet as the script veers from solemn to silly and back again without demonstrating an iota of her daring. In the end, nobody wins, especially the audience.