What makes a person who they are? This question lies at the heart of The Prestige, Christopher Nolan’s 2006 movie about two warring magicians, played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale, who risk everything to become the master of their craft. Like a talented illusionist himself, Nolan blurs the line between appearance and reality until we, the viewer, begin to question our own understanding of identity. Is it based on a soul or some immutable essence? Or do we only become ourselves through the roles we play? Here’s our Take on how Nolan explores this theme in The Prestige, as well his other films like Memento, The Dark Knight, and Inception—and how this may be The Prestige’s most impressive reveal.
What makes a person who they are? Is it a soul? The sum of their experiences? Or is it something else—something hiding in plain sight? This question lies at the heart of The Prestige, Christopher Nolan’s 2006 movie about two warring magicians who risk everything to become the undisputed master of their craft.
But Robert Angier and Alfred Borden’s costumes, disguises, and fake names don’t just befuddle all the characters in the story. Like a talented illusionist himself, Nolan blurs the line between appearance and reality until we, the viewers, are left to wonder who exactly is who. And the point of all this is that we emerge questioning our own understanding of identity.
This theme is arguably the most consistent thread running through Nolan’s entire filmography, and it’s also a central question in the long history of philosophical thought. Is our identity based on some immutable essence? Or do we only become ourselves through the roles we play? Here’s our take on how The Prestige illuminates Nolan’s feelings on who we are and how we connect with the world around us—and how this may be the film’s most impressive reveal.
Borden: “Are you watching closely?” - The Prestige
We Are All Angier’s Hat
First, let’s clear up what we see (or think we see) in The Prestige. The story begins with Angier and Borden working as “shills” for a more established illusionist. Angier’s wife, Julia, is part of their act, miraculously escaping from a water tank. But one night, the trick goes wrong. Julia drowns—and Angier blames Borden.
They turn on each other and become rivals. Their competition becomes even more heated when Borden debuts the Transported Man, an astounding trick in which Borden seems to disappear into one wardrobe, then immediately emerge from another.
Obsessed with performing his own version of the trick, Angier first hires a double, then sends his assistant, Olivia, to steal Borden’s secrets. But after Olivia falls for Borden, she leads Angier astray with a fake diary planted by Borden. The diary leads Angier to believe that Borden is using technology acquired from inventor Nikola Tesla. And Tesla does end up building Angier a machine—one that makes an identical clone of whatever, or whoever, steps inside it. Angier uses it to debut his new, improved Transported Man act.
Angier: “What you’re about to witness is not magic. It’s purely science.” - The Prestige
Confused at how Angier is pulling off his illusion, Borden goes backstage at his rival’s act and is shocked to watch Angier drown. Borden is caught snooping, mistakenly accused of murdering Angier, and hanged for his enemy’s murder, even though Angier isn’t actually dead, and even visits Borden in prison (as his original identity, Lord Caldlow).
But then, there’s yet another twist: Borden is revealed to have an identical twin brother. To maintain their illusion, the two had been sharing a single identity—even the same wife and family. So the surviving Borden returns to exact his final revenge against Angier. And in the end, he, at last, understands his rival’s secret: every night Angier was cloning himself, then killing his duplicates.
Angier: “Cutter knew. But I told him it was too simple. Too easy.”
Borden: “Simple, maybe, but not easy.” - The Prestige
Throughout all this tricky business of clones and identical twins, The Prestige frequently asks us to ponder: Who is the real Borden? And who is the real Angier? These questions echo a millennia-old argument about our very understanding of what defines us as individuals. Philosophers like Plato and René Descartes believed that every human contains a soul or essence—but not everyone agreed. Enlightenment philosopher David Hume believed humans are merely a “bundle of perceptions”—that we are simply what we see, hear, and feel.
Morpheus: “If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste, and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” - The Matrix
John Locke proposed that “psychological continuity”—being consciously aware of your actions from one moment to the next—forms the basis of personal identity. But in The Prestige, Nolan puts forward his own take on this classic debate: our identity is defined by the function we perform. We see a basic version of this idea when Angier visits Tesla. They discover that Tesla’s mysterious machine has made dozens of clones of Angier’s hat.
Tesla: “Don’t forget your hat.”
Angier: “Which one is mine?”
Tesla: “They are all your hat, Mr. Angier.” - The Prestige
While Tesla’s reply may just seem like a witty retort, it’s actually a profound statement about identity—one that sums up the film’s and Nolan’s thoughts on the matter. For Tesla, they are all Angier’s hat, because they can all just as easily function as Angier’s hat With this one moment, The Prestige plants the suggestion that like Angier’s hat, who we are is determined not by any fixed soul or essence, but by our function.
The Real Illusionists
We eventually learn there are two men who share the identity of Alfred Borden, each alternating between being “Borden” and being Borden’s stage engineer, Fallon. Nolan does grant that there are essential differences between these two people. Even when Borden is speaking, talking, functioning just as he always has, his wife, Sarah, suspects that he’s almost a different man from one day to another.
Borden: “I love you.”
Sarah: “Today you don’t mean it.” - The Prestige
Indeed, each of the two men fall in love with different women: Olivia and Sarah. Yet they are still parts of a single, functional composite, united by their function as Alfred Borden, two sides of the same coin, much like the two-headed one Borden presents to Sarah’s nephew.
Olivia: “You married her, you had a child with her—”
Borden: “Yes, yes, a part of me did. But the other part didn’t. The part that found you. The part that’s sitting here right now.” - The Prestige
When Angier, Olivia, and stage engineer John Cutter debate how Borden’s Transported Man works, Cutter is convinced that Borden is using his own double.
Cutter: “Then, it’s a double that comes out at the end. It’s the only way.” - The Prestige
Angier and Olivia disagree.
Angier: “The same man comes out of that second cabinet, I promise you.”
Olivia: “It’s the same man.” - The Prestige
But in a sense, all three are right. Cutter is correct in that a second man comes out of the cabinet. But because “Borden” is a shared identity, Angier and Olivia are correct that they’re also the same man. Crucially, neither twin is revealed to be the “true” Borden, or the “real” Fallon. Borden belongs to whoever is fulfilling his function at a given time.
As if Borden’s shared identity isn’t confusing enough, it turns out that “Robert Angier” is an invented persona. It’s a pseudonym, adopted by a wealthy British elite named Lord Caldlow. On top of this guise, Robert Angier adopts another one: his onstage persona, The Great Danton. In other words, he’s a British man of means who becomes an American magician who reinvents his act with a French-sounding persona. Robert Angier is an identity that is all appearance and function, with no single, unchanging essence.
Angier: “I couldn’t fathom to live my whole life pretending to be someone else.”
Julia: “You are pretending to be someone else.”
Angier: “I don’t think changing a name compares.”
Julia: “Not just your name. It’s who you are and where you’re from.” - The Prestige
The film highlights this idea by framing the earlier search for Angier’s lookalike as a search for Angier himself.
Angier: “Take a good look. Let’s get out there and find me.” - The Prestige
When this leads to an actor named Gerald Root, Root’s ability to function as Angier means he is Angier. When Angier first takes a closer look at Root, Nolan’s camera circles them, leaving the viewer disoriented and unsure which is the real Angier. By jarring the viewer’s perception, Nolan underlines that there is no inherent difference between the two men. Robert Angier is not a single man, using multiple identities. It’s a single identity, using multiple men.
Once again, Angier’s hat comes into play—now acting as a conduit for the identity of Robert Angier. In his New Transported Man act, Angier throws his hat to his double, then disappears beneath the stage. And without the hat, the man below ceases to function as Robert Angier. Similarly, a rubber ball transfers Alfred Borden from one man to another, both onstage and off.
Angier: “No one cares about the man who disappears, the man who goes into the box. They care about the one who comes out the other side.” - The Prestige
But what about the clones? Once Angier begins duplicating himself in Tesla’s machine, how do we know which is the “real” Angier? Again: “They are all your hat, Mr. Angier.” Because each clone functions as Angier, each clone is Angier. All of the clones could claim equal rights to the Angier identity. But whichever one survives and continues to function as him out in the world is the so-called “real” Robert Angier
The “realness” of the clones adds a gravity to the magician’s nightly sacrifice that makes it all the more terrifying and awe-inspiring. He’s actually killing himself, just to bring awe to his audience. He even does it in the most emotionally painful way imaginable, by replicating the way his wife died. So in the end, Nolan uses all this questioning of identity as a metaphor for what the artist does: surrender themselves totally, for the sake of that one perfect illusion.
The Identity of Christopher Nolan
The theme of identity-as-function can be found throughout Christopher Nolan’s films, to a degree that you can argue it’s one of his work’s defining ideas. In 2000’s Memento, Leonard Shelby, a man suffering from anterograde amnesia, struggles with the psychological continuity that Locke proposed as fundamental to personal identity. Without a stable, independent sense of self, Leonard is defined solely by his single-minded search for his wife’s killer.
Teddy: “You don’t know who you are.”
Leonard Shelby: “I’m Leonard Shelby. I’m from San Francisco—”
Teddy: “That’s who you were. That’s not what you’ve become.” - Memento
As Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote in his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal… the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.” And Nolan’s film agrees, showing us that this purpose is fundamental to Leonard’s existence—ultimately, more so than any objective reality. If he lets that purpose die (even by solving the murder), that would mean letting himself die as well.
Nolan’s Batman trilogy offers perhaps the clearest illustration of how function forms the basis of identity. In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne feebly tries to explain that his wealth isn’t who he really is.
Bruce Wayne: “Inside, I am… I am more.”
Rachel: “It’s not who you are underneath. It’s what you do that defines you.” - Batman Begins
How he behaves, as Batman, is who Wayne really is. We see this again in the sequel, The Dark Knight, when Batman flexibly adapts his outward persona to serve his city’s needs.
Bruce Wayne: “I’m whatever Gotham needs me to be.” - The Dark Knight
And in the third film, The Dark Knight Rises, even when Commissioner Gordon learns the name of the man beneath that assumed identity, to Gordon, that changes nothing.
Bruce Wayne: “No one’s ever going to know who saved an entire city.”
Commissioner Gordon: “They know—it was the Batman.” - The Dark Knight Rises
The same goes for the trilogy’s villains. There’s no secret identity or essence to the Joker beyond the role he plays, which is why the “real” origin story to how he got his scars doesn’t matter.
The Dark Knight also finds Nolan returning to the metaphor of the double-headed coin through Harvey Dent, who also becomes two men with different essences sharing a single identity as the villainous Two-Face. And in The Dark Knight Rises, the masked mercenary Bane shrugs off any notion of identity outside of action.
Bane: “It doesn’t matter who we are. What matters is our plan.” - The Dark Knight Rises
Nolan also explored these ideas in 2010’s Inception, presenting a world where appearance and reality are so indistinguishable it’s pretty much impossible to tell dreams from so-called “real life.” Tom Hardy even plays an identity forger named Eames, whose ability to function as someone else in a dream allows him to become them.
Nolan even gets at this idea in 2017’s Dunkirk, in which Tom Hardy once again spends most of the film behind a mask, reduced entirely to his function as a fighter pilot. These dozens of thin, dark-haired young men who are nearly identical in their uniforms have been stripped of individuality, reduced to interchangeable pawns in the fog of war.
In The Prestige, sometimes the trick lies in concealing the fact that there is no trick. The mind-bending twists of Nolan’s story similarly leave us dizzy and convince us that there must be some hidden truth about who Angier and Borden really are. But all this is misdirection. If our function defines us, then there is no illusion—no trick that, when exposed, would reveal who we really are.
The basic idea that there is no fixed, pre-existing self is at the heart of Existentialism, the philosophical movement centered on the idea that, in the words of Jean-Paul Sartre, “existence precedes essence.” As Friedrich Nietzsche (a key forerunner to existentialism) put it, “‘The doer’ is merely a fictitious addition to the doing; the doing is all.” Or in Batman’s words, “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.”
And while this discussion might seem cerebral or abstract, there’s a concrete lesson here. Each of us has a set of beliefs about who we are deep down—that we are fundamentally good people, for example, even if others don’t always recognize it.
But Nolan’s films would suggest that we are good people only insofar as we do good things. For example, unless we’re making sustainable choices in our homes or supporting environmental causes, we’re not really environmentalists. We can only identify as activists if we’re out there performing the functions of activism—protesting, donating, signing petitions—not just posting a spicy tweet and calling it a day. We can believe that we’re warm and caring, but if we don’t fulfill that role for the people in our lives, then, sorry to say, that is not who we really are.
Thus Nolan’s philosophy offers a challenge to put our beliefs about ourselves into action. This might sound a little daunting at first, but is it not actually liberating? As the existentialists emphasized, we’re free to create our own meaning in life. So rather than being bound to some preordained script of who we must be, we get to choose—and changing our behavior allows us to change who we truly are.
Cutter: “The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary.” - The Prestige
And that is the most impressive trick of all.