The Favourite, appropriately, is a battleground for the three actresses, each who put on blistering, darkly humorous performances that also manage to somehow evoke empathy at different parts in the film. Who are we rooting for? The answer is constantly changing, which we can attest to both the writing and the acting skill -- all three are deplorable women, and yet they're not monsters. They're not necessarily nice people (as Abigail says, "As it turns out, I am capable of much unpleasantness") but they're undeniably human.
Lanthimos steps away from the story and script this time, which actually improves the piquant dialogue dramatically. His previous movies, The Lobster and the aforementioned Sacred Deer, got most of its kicks out of its deadpan delivery and bizarreness. The Favourite owes much to the timing of the lines, but fires up its verbal anachronistic flirting to the best. The anachronism is there in the actions and words of the court, but also in the costumes which have a definite edge (as well as more contemporary techniques and materials such as denim) that is a reflection of the spoken barbs and the distortion of the world. Lanthimos frequently angles the camera up at a character, and it's fascinating to note what power dynamics he alludes to with each viewpoint and how he personalizes a lens to each woman. His extreme wide angles show us the full opulence of the surrounding set (such a contrast from the stark, minimal glacial atmosphere of Sacred Deer), but also show us how hemmed in and insignificantly small the characters are. The lavishness adds to the claustrophobia and the constant borders and lines emphasize confinement. There's constant use of a fish-eye lens, which through its bloatedness is constantly reminding us of the excess of the court as well as the fact that this is a manipulation of history as it happened through the visual perversion.
That is part of the interesting contrast here as he clearly employs natural lighting as much as possible, which is most apparent in the lovely scenes where a person crouches in a dark corridor with only a brightly burning candle to illuminate their features. Lanthimos shoots 35 mm which gives a lovely tone and grain to those images. However, he has no problem showing his hand as a director and story-maker, of bringing the audience out of the story to remind them that what they are seeing is a fabrication. The Favourite is told in chapters, each section coming with a title card. Other than the fish-eye, there are swish pans, and action is often done on a Libra Head, giving both a smoothness and often a sort of physical "come look at this action with me" movement.
The obvious fabrication of the story does more than add to the fun and playfulness however; it does more to remind us how their relationship and power struggle can be reflected in contemporary times. Queen Anne's subjects are at the whim of their monarch's petulant mood swings and whoever can flatter her best at the moment. Furthermore, the war is not always won by those who love best or who are the most capable, but by whoever is most skilled at bamboozling others.
Lanthimos is not known to be tender towards his characters, but The Favourite at least is actually a story of its women rather than an exercise on a hypothetical. Anne, for example, could easily be a monster to behold on many levels. However, her dotage on her pet rabbits is representative of her burden. They symbolize both her helplessness in situations small and large, and also the tragedies of a past she is unable to move on from.
Cinematographer Robbie Ryan does terrific work in collaboration with Lanthimos here, showing a large departure from the light-dripping American Honey. The music, like everything else, veers from period appropriate to not with the harpsichord leanings of Vivaldi to the atonal scrapes of Messiaien. It's lavish at times and startlingly austere at others.
The Favourite is not a particularly warm story, but it is visually extravagant, and features three powerhouse performances that aren't to be missed. With all its obvious technique, Lanthimos' best move was in the casting of this well-written and stellarly-performed piece. Through all its reference of black and white, both visually and metaphorically, it's the shades of grey here that take this movie up a notch from what he's done before.