Kate Winslet ‘spectacular’ in new show The Regime

The Regime was shot partly in Austria, in the gilded, opulent Schönbrunn Palace, the historical summer residence of the Hapsburgs. Mountains are visible in the background, but geography is less important than geopolitics. With her country initially under the thumb of the US economically, Elena begins to play East against West and tries to partner with China. As the story goes on and she becomes more unhinged, the series deftly balances comedy and drama, impinging on real-world connections in a light-handed way. Stephen Frears (The Queen) directed episodes one, two and four, and Jessica Hobbs (The Crown) the other three, and both directors smoothly lure us into this cock-eyed world that shadows our own.

Elena does not resemble one specific world leader but several figures. Vladimir Putin inevitably comes to mind, especially when we see how she has rivals arrested and hauled off to prison, or plots to invade a neighbouring country, claiming it was hers all along. Two years after Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, the parallels are impossible to miss. But there is also a strand of Eva Peron, more from the musical Evita than from history, in her glam blonde look and her balcony speeches to what she is convinced is an adoring public. And many of her authoritarian tendencies are generic. She surveils ordinary citizens. She masquerades as a populist, giving an address while standing in a cabbage field to show her connection to farmers. She manipulates the media, spouting blatant lies and giving gaudy performances, dancing and singing Santa Baby as her Christmas video message to the country. Good taste is not her forte. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see her hawking gold trainers, like Donald Trump.

But the story becomes darker and darker as it heads toward a sobering end, not necessarily the one you might think is coming. Along the way, Hugh Grant appears in episode four as Elena’s leftist predecessor. Grant makes this surprising character wily and complicated in just a few scenes. It’s too bad he only appears in that single, standout instalment. Andrea Riseborough plays the manager of the palace, fearfully trying to please Elena in order to protect her small son. Martha Plimpton appears in one episode as a US senator, whose one-on-one standoff with Elena is a delicious model, on both sides, of not saying what you mean but being perfectly clear. Ah, diplomacy.

From start to finish, The Regime’s view of real-life politics and the state of the world is deeply cynical, but it’s not hard to believe.

★★★★☆

The Regime is released 3 March on HBO and Max in the US and 8 April on Sky Atlantic and NOW in the UK.

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