The Regime, review: Kate Winslet’s Liz Truss impression can’t save this HBO flop

Kate Winslet in The Regime
Kate Winslet in The Regime - HBO via AP

Kate Winslet’s comedy talents were confirmed beyond doubt in the episode of Ricky Gervais’s Extras where she satirises herself as an awards-hungry luvvy who saw a Holocaust melodrama as an easy passport to an Oscar (shortly before she won an Oscar starring in a Holocaust melodrama).

She hasn’t had much opportunity to play funny in the intervening decades: most her of recent roles have been earnest misery-fests. But she finally gets the chance to unleash the comic within in new HBO political satire, The Regime.

HBO’s shows typically air in the UK within 24 hours of debuting in the US. The Regime won’t be coming to Sky until April. Perhaps someone this side of the Atlantic realised a satire of a generic dictatorship in “Middle Europe”  – a phrase nobody has ever used in the history of geopolitics –  would land differently outside America. Because, while Winslet gives everything as autocratic leader Elena Verham, the show built around her is as gaudy and empty as a dictator’s palace.

The Regime fails as satire because it has no idea what it is satirising. Most of the cast is English and at moments this portrait of incompetent flunkies (including Andrea Riseborough as Vernham’s fixer) in the orbit of an impulsive and unpredictable politician lands like a feverish remake of The Thick Of It. Still, we are clearly intended to see Vernham as a stand-in for Hungary’s Viktor Orbán or Turkey’s Recep Erdogan (with base notes of Vladimir Putin) – a conceit which doesn’t hit the target given Winslet, as she tacitly acknowledged recently on The Graham Norton Show, seems to have modelled Vernham at least in part on Liz Truss.

HBO is regarded as a powerhouse of high-class TV.  Yet it’s had its share of flops and watching The Regime it’s hard not to be reminded of last year’s The Idol. That was also a show with lavish production values and a female lead with high name recognition (Lily-Rose Depp) but which also suffered from delusions regarding its quality and its efficiency as social commentary.

In the case of The Regime the problems begin with showrunner Will Tracy (an American who previously worked on Succession) and a script which doesn’t know what it is skewering. Beyond its central European location little is revealed about the country Vernham has turned into a dictatorship.

She lives in a gilded fortress reminiscent of Ceauşescu’s Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest yet her assault on democracy is presented as an Orbán-esque undermining of institutions rather than a brutal takeover.

Kate Winslet and Matthias Schoenaerts in The Regime
Kate Winslet and Matthias Schoenaerts in The Regime - HBO via AP

There is also some uncomfortable accent politics. Everyone in power is English (including Hugh Grant as the deposed opposition figure). But a violent soldier (Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts) who represents the unwashed proletariat and is assigned to monitor the moisture levels in Vernham’s palace (she is a hypochondriac) speaks in a towelled on “East European” burr.

There are some funny scenes – such as when Vernham’s lackies hide their appalled expressions and deliver a standing ovation at the end of her dreadful karaoke version of Chicago’s If You Leave Me Now. Yet it is otherwise hard see what exactly The Regime thinks it’s doing. It isn’t authentic enough to rate as a commentary on the undermining of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe or Vladimir Putin’s descent into expansionist autocracy.

Nor does it work as a satire of British politics – it’s much too 1984 for that. It may well make sense to Americans who see Europe as one generic blob. But despite Winslet’s hard work – she is very serious in her wish to be funny –  The Regime is toothless and joyless and easily HBO’s biggest fumble since The Idol.

The Regime is on HBO in the US now, and begins on Sky Atlantic in the UK in April