Review of 'Regime': it flirts with satire but lacks political bite


“Regime,” which premieres Sunday on HBO, is a well-made, beautifully designed and wonderfully acted disaster series. Created by Will Tracy, writer of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” and directed by Stephen Frears, it stars Kate Winslet as the head of a fictional contemporary and anonymous Central European country, like Ruritania in “The Prisoner of Zenda.” or Syldavia. in Tintin or Zubrowka in “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, although less charming. Her title is Chancellor, although palace appointments are ostentatiously royal. As monarch, she identifies with the State and, as absolute monarch, she identifies the State with herself. (But the state is not in good shape.)

It's a comedy, though often dark and violent, until it isn't.

Like real-world autocrats, Winslet's Elena Vernham is someone to tiptoe around and agree with. And mentally unstable. She believes the palace is infected with mold and is rebuilding it. She demands that no one breathe in her direction, as she finds her smell intolerable. She converses with the corpse of her father, apparently a chancellor before her, rotting in a glass coffin. (“Silly old shell. Now you have ads. That's new.”) She gives long daily radio speeches and sings pop songs for captive audiences. (Winslet's rendition of Chicago's “If You Leave Me Now” is cleverly out of tune.)

Into the palace and into her life comes Corporal Herbert Zubak (Matthias Schoenaerts), called “Butcher” much to her chagrin, a soldier involved in a massacre of protesting miners, who has been more or less sequestered in the palace to serve as the latest mold of Elena. monitor. He walks in front of her with a hydrometer to measure the relative humidity of any space he is about to enter. Zubak is a volatile person, violent against others and against himself, bullied into a ridiculous and degrading position. But when he thwarts an assassination attempt, Zubak becomes Elena's protector, her doctor (using “potato steam” to “cleanse toxins”), a caterer who serves the land, and an influence similar to the of Rasputin that shapes the government (or the court, one could more easily say). .

Matthias Schoenaerts and Kate Winslet in HBO's “The Regime.”

(Miya Mizuno/HBO)

Tracy has tested various autocratic regimes, current and past, in creating her imaginary nation. The generic imperialism of Elena's late father's dream of “reunification” with a neighboring republic, which she calls “an expression of peace and love towards our compatriots across the border,” easily brings to mind Russia versus Ukraine or China. against Taiwan. Zubak's desire to redistribute land to the peasantry and his elevation of rural culture are the stuff of many, if not most, revolutions. But these are passing incidents among many; we also have Hugh Grant as an imprisoned predecessor and Martha Plimpton as a Clinton-esque visitor to the United States, trying to strike a deal for the country's cobalt, its only product other than sugar beets. There may be too much going on for too many hours for “The Regime” to register effectively as satire; references never quite become objectives.

If satire is even the point. For all the political filigree, “The Regime” boils down to a kind of love story between Elena and Herbert, and the cogs stripped away from their shifting power dynamic. He is under her spell, then she is under his, then they are in therapy together, with countless variations as political circumstances evolve improbably around her.

Elena sees herself as a loving person: one can take the temperature of someone addressed as “my love” at any time, and “love” is a word used widely throughout the series, but she is casually dismissive, even abusive, with those around her. she, including her French husband, Nicolas (Guillaume Gallienne), running a network of poetry centres; the various ministers who try to manage her by pleasing her; and the palace steward, Agnes (Andrea Riseborough), the only consistently sympathetic character in the entire series. (Elena has taken Agnes's young son Oskar, played by Louis Mynett, as her own; she calls it “co-parenting.”)

Winslet somehow completes a character whose hallmark is her whimsy, as, under successive influences or inspirations, she adopts one persona after another. Faced with changes in fortune, he goes from joy to despair. (The changing cut of her clothes is a nice touch.) As Zubak, Schoenaerts is almost too effective, a terrifying presence who becomes intermittently sympathetic as a person above your head, whose animalistic brutality is effective only up to a point. point, and whose cracked advice Elena follows and whose practical advice she ignores. But as the series progresses and changes locations, the fate of its protagonists becomes less compelling and (within a range of unpredictability) more obvious; the comedy fades and one becomes disinvested in the drama.

It is a sum less than its disparate parts. But I liked the parts.

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