The Regime: Season 1 REVIEW – Queen Winslet

Flawed fun with Kate Winslet's delusional tyrant.

the regime kate winslet

The Regime takes a jolly, lighthearted look at a central European country crumbling under the poor guidance of its tinpot leader. Having taken this lighthearted tack, though, it runs into a perennial problem with comedies that suddenly try to take themselves seriously – specifically, that it can’t quite manage to do both.

Our authoritarian chancellor here is played by Kate Winslet, and though I would hope Winslet isn’t really a vacuous tyrant, Winslet’s own star power can’t help but bleed into the role. Oscar-winners seem like natural territory for a cult of personality, after all. And Winslet’s curiously personal way of telling her people she loves them carries with it, shall we say, a timbre that homelier dictators like Alexander Lukashenko or Xi Jinping simply can’t match.

The Death Of Stalin, Armando Iannucci’s Soviet-regime-change comedy, is perhaps too obvious a comparison to bring up. But I’m mainly doing so because of the keenly wielded profanity Iannucci brought to the political comedy, now a tradition in which The Regime does try to follow. The cabinet, sad to say, never get enough play to really do this properly, but Winslet turns out some excellently petulant f-laced demands.

Despite appearances, far more than The Death Of Stalin the obvious historo-comedy reference here is Blackadder II, and specifically Miranda Richardson’s Queenie (aka Elizabeth I Regina). A psychotic overgrown schoolgirl, who could not be told ‘no’ on pain of death, Queenie was freely unleashing her own id with hilarious consequences long before the likes of Eric Cartman ever appeared on the scene.

Winslet, here, isn’t quite so medieval as to threaten to cut off the nose of any woman prettier than her (“Imagine the mess when she got a cold, yuk!”) but is very definitely following in Queenie’s mould. Every week, there’s a new obsession, the rest of the palace having to awkwardly shift gear and shuffle around to bow to this latest whim or expression of Munchausen’s Syndrome. And she spins such delusions of grandeur that more than any of her subjects, she’s the first one in line to believe the hype.

So The Regime is very clearly Winslet’s show. Overly clearly, in fact, the only possible competitor on that field is Matthias Schoenaerts as her pet war criminal (incongruously Russian-accented against a cast full of Brits and Irish), and while he’s holding his own as a costar he is present largely as part of a toxic codependent relationship that only eggs Winslet’s excesses on further. Other than this central duo pretty well everyone else present is relegated to the peanut gallery, cursed to react to whatever Winslet’s up to today.

This can foster a degree of sympathy, it’s very much what we-the-audience are here for too, but it makes them hopelessly flat – and ‘them’, here, includes all the senior government ministers of Unnamed Dictatorship. They do start from the rocky ground of having to be a bit ineffective, but there are ways to do that with a bit more colour and depth (or at least bas-relief) than any of them receive. If nothing else it stretches belief that the head of state security wouldn’t arrange for Schoenaerts’s interloper to meet with an unfortunate accident involving piano wire within about five minutes.

Andrea Riseborough’s hapless palace functionary is the nearest we get to a perspective from the ground – and as a palace functionary, she isn’t even that near. She’s mainly there to po-facedly service the resident morality pet: it’s her son, but she’s had to weather the additional indignity of, what else, Winslet quasi-adopting him as her own.

To put it bluntly, The Regime is not good at inspiring pathos. It is far better at mining its bleaker elements for absolute pitch-black comedy, and when it does it has the confidence to simply let the darkness sit and be quite hilarious in an unheimlich sort of way, rather than needing to put a button on it to indicate ‘laugh now’ to the viewers at home. So having started down this path, really it should commit fully, rather than trying to keep a foot in both worlds.

By the time it’s trying to give us Winslet and Schoenaerts in moments of real sobriety, for all the performance they give it, it can’t quite sit right given the circumstances. We have already seen their excesses, after all, and everyone around them being faintly crap too isn’t much of a defence. Winslet looking concerned and reflective in long lingering shots over piano music cannot, ultimately, humanise a character who’s Ceaușescu with nicer legs.

In a way, this focus on style over substance is appropriate. Winslet’s premiership is heavy on the stage management and photo ops that naturally lets the show cast her as a hashtag-blessed influencer. When that crust of public image breaks we find ourselves staring into depths of confusion that are deeply incompatible with running a country – which is of course the big joke of it all.

(Sadly, Winslet’s multiple musical numbers deny us the obvious implication of rehearsals under an incredibly nervous choreographer.)

The Regime is of course drawing from the playbook of how despotisms tend to really screw up, but the way it moves between the big plot-point beats of this doesn’t quite feel natural. You can see all too clearly that they’d decided long in advance that now this is going to happen, connective tissue be damned.

It’s hardly the worst case of a narrative clinging to predetermined plot beats you’ll have seen, but with the show dealing with a tinpot dictatorship as it does, it can’t help but lack for verisimilitude. For all the stringent state controls, at the top Winslet’s kind of regime is inevitably a chaotic place, not least since it has to bow to the dear leader’s whims and wants, so seeing the country devolve in this clearly regimented way feels more artificial than it should.

Given the lavishly dressed palace that The Regime seldom leaves, not to mention its A-list leading lady, it may be that the show’s simply too expensively constructed to have the kind of flexibility that in the clutch it ends up needing. I mentioned Armando Iannucci earlier – his political comedies have always involved a fair whack of improv, and you can easily imagine that The Regime produced a lengthy and hilarious B-roll of Winslet wandering around in character, effing and blinding everything under the sun, which could support a show all of its own. Quite possibly even a significantly better one.

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the regime kate winslet
The Regime has bright spots of a blitheness of spirit that can be very funny, but too often finds itself distracted from this clear path forward. Kate Winslet is the runaway MVP, having to hold it all together in the role of a woman who empathically isn’t holding it all together.