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The Regime

Few things are as alarming in modern day American television as dialogue-heavy screenplays—fully loaded with insults, jokes, withering monologues—that say nothing at all. If characters were properly fleshed out, their words would reveal their backstories, inner workings, motivations; but when they’re written as flatly as those on HBO’s newest limited series, “The Regime,” even decent acting and intelligent costume, hair, and makeup design can’t save the show.

The series’ ingredients are, ostensibly, of high quality. Will Tracy (“The Menu,” “Succession,” former Editor-in-Chief of The Onion) created the show; Stephen Frears is one of the directors; executive producers include Frank Rich (“Succession”) and Tracey Seaward (“Philomena,” “Eastern Promises”). Kate Winslet, also an EP, stars as Chancellor Elena Vernham, an emotionally stunted hypochondriac who left behind her career as a wealthy doctor to lead a nameless Middle European country. Consumed by fears that she will succumb to the same lung disease that took her father, Elena hires Corporal Herbert Zubak (Matthias Schoenaerts), recently disgraced for massacring miners protesting poor working conditions, to walk in front of her, everywhere she goes, so he can test the air with a hygrometer. Herbert proves his mettle during an assassination attempt, and soon Elena is in complete thrall to his beliefs about folk medicine and isolationist foreign policy. The problem is that Herbert, our stand-in for a working class stiff whose abusive childhood and frustration makes him susceptible to right-wing populism, earnestly believes in these ideas, and even loves Elena. All she really wants is for someone to quietly tell her what to do so she can do it and take credit. It’s a predictably dangerous combination, and neither of them realize it till it’s too late.

There are a few commendable aspects of the show. Consolata Boyle’s inspired costume design does quite a bit of heavy lifting in Elena’s evolution. Perfectly fitted skirt suits and dresses in bold colors (green, white, blue) are used in scenes meant to cement Elena’s authority; olive green is used in scenes when she is meting out punishment. (She only wears trousers when she visits a union that is enraged by her anti-worker actions.) As she slowly adopts Herbert’s right-wing nationalism, Elena switches to peasant dresses, billowy sleeves, and embroidered blouses, not dissimilar to Republicans awkwardly posing for hunting photos in attire purchased in the previous 24 hours, or how Democrats kneel wearing kente cloth while doing nothing to reform this nation’s sickening carceral justice system. 

Perhaps my favorite detail is Elena’s jewelry; she wears bigger, flashier earrings at parties, like many women might, and opts for smaller, more delicate earrings featuring floral designs for events courting support from farmers. But when confronting an American politician, she chooses gold hoops equal in stature and detail to her opponent’s earrings. Hair and makeup designer Sian Griggs (“Maestro,” “Killers of the Flower Moon”, “Ex Machina”) is equally worthy of praise. Elena’s hair is an ever-so-slightly wavy chignon when we meet her, but as her Earth begins to revolve around Herbert’s sun, she adds a thick single braid, wrapped around her head, or sports a long cozy plait while promoting agrarian land reforms. I have no problem with the fact that Alexandre Desplat’s score sounds like a remix of his work on Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel”; both stories are set in similar parts of the world, and Desplat’s film score is one of the finest ever written. And Winslet herself is reliable as always. She’s spoken in interviews about crafting Elena’s accent, but what I find even more interesting is the downward droop of her lower lip, which deepens in moments of toddler-like petulance and indignation. 

But that’s where the good work ends. We never learn whether Elena came to power in an election that was truly fair and free. Her cadre of ministers, bickering and fighting and sniveling, have no motivations other than the maintenance of their own wealth and power. The camerawork does not deal in subtlety. Overuse of Dutch angles makes the ridiculousness of the proceedings far more literal than it needs to be. Scattered along the way are some keen bits of dialogue, including observations about how imperialism forces smaller nations, especially those with valuable resources, to choose between allying with America/NATO or China, and that elites often try to curry favor with disenchanted members of the working class by weaponizing their frustration to malign minorities and dismantle workers’ rights. 

Were “The Regime” slightly better written, it could at least plead an identity crisis. But it doesn’t even get that far. It’s not funny enough to be a brutal satire about a needy, power-hungry airhead and her sycophants. (HBO already did that and called it “Veep.”) It’s not insightful enough to engender empathy for its despicable characters’ vulnerabilities. (Ditto, “Succession.”) Hell, it’s not even unhinged enough to count as a European politics-inspired remake of “The Idol.” I got excited when I saw Gary Shtyengart’s name on the list of consulting producers; few novelists working today possess his astute wit and devastating emotional clarity. Sadly, his efforts flat too. One wonders what an adaptation of his excellent novel Absurdistan, which is set in roughly the same part of the world and is far funnier than “The Regime,” would have been like instead. 

Whole series screened for review. Premieres on HBO on Sunday, March 3rd. 

Nandini Balial

Nandini Balial is a film and TV critic, essayist, and interviewer.

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Film Credits

The Regime movie poster

The Regime (2024)

Cast

Kate Winslet as Elena Vernham

Matthias Schoenaerts as Herbert Zubak

Guillaume Gallienne as Nicholas

Andrea Riseborough as Agnes

Martha Plimpton as Judith Holt

Hugh Grant

Director

Creator

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