In ‘The Regime,’ Elena Is a Mass of Contradictions — and So Are Her Clothes

One of the delights of Will Tracy’s “The Regime” is how eagerly the HBO satire reinvents itself with every new episode, from the palace decor to Chancellor Elena Vernham (Kate Winslet). But then, Elena doesn’t grow or change so much as she cycles through different modes (and costumes) like she’s in a fitting room. If we’re never sure what Elena will walk into the scene at any point, neither are any of the lackeys around her.

“Putting together the look of her and the costumes was a big collaborative effort because how she looks is everything. It is that mask, you know?” Winslet told IndieWire. Not that Elena’s masks stand up to scrutiny; they’re not even meant to. Elena is so busy chasing after approval — from her dead father, the people under her rule, even the unstable soldier she forges an alliance with — that she’s often remaking herself on the walk from room to room.

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And Elena’s clothes, in particular, became an instrument that Winslet and costume designer Consolata Boyle deployed to keep the audience as unstable as those in her orbit. “It created a feeling of slight unease, which is very, very important. Every time you see her, more or less, she’s different. It created a feeling that nobody quite knew where they were with her, what mood she was in, and how she would relate to them. So everybody is absolutely on tenterhooks around her. Everybody is nervous, paranoid, and that’s the slight sort of noir-ish element about all of this.”

“It wouldn’t have been interesting to play her speaking like me, pulled together in sharp, good-looking costumes; that doesn’t make sense,” Winslet added. “I needed to make her multifaceted so that at least I could stand up for the choices I’d made and keep it funny. That comedy and tragedy, that dance, it was a dance every day, every day, every day. It was completely exhausting. We were just destroyed by the end, but it was brilliant fun.

Kate Winslet peasant costume The Regime HBO
‘The Regime’HBO

And if that means relinquishing her armor-like skirt suits for dirndls and braids as part of her new lease on life (enhanced by the scent of boiling potatoes), then so be it! But Elena is always aware of the effect she wants to have on people, even if she’s oblivious to their true reactions. “In some cases, I’ve added traditional embroidery to her costume,” Boyle said. “And that, again, is Elena manipulating. When she’s talking to her people, she dresses in a certain way.”

In fact, Elena’s clothes were so integral to “The Regime” that they were planned far in advance and other departments worked around them. “Everybody knew everything, and if there were sort of screaming problems, they absolutely had to be sorted out in advance,” Boyle said. “Because once people were on set, it was like the energy was unstoppable. There’s very, very little room for the sort of turning on a sixpence kind of thing that sometimes happens. That was done by communication, by everybody seeing my drawings, everybody seeing what was coming up, what was exactly the colors, exactly the shapes.”

For Winslet, the constant changes to Elena’s appearance and clothes are indicative of the instability that defines her. “It’s her fear of the outside world, how she speaks, and the things that she then subsequently feels she has to keep hidden as a leader because she’s got to be beautiful and everyone has to love her,” Winslet said. “She just gets it all wrong. It’s really kind of tragic.”

“The Regime” airs Sundays on HBO.

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