Ever since I posted my review of The Prestige way back when, people have been ending up on our site after searching for keywords such as “The Prestige movie explained”, “Prestige explanation”, “The Prestige movie”, “What happened in the end of the Prestige?” and “what happened at the end of the Prestige.” I’ll agree, the movie was a bit overwhelming the first time we (Christine and I) saw it in the theater, and we left asking each other a ton of questions, almost to the point where we turned around and went back in for a second showing. However, the second time we watched the movie, most of the confusing parts made perfect sense.
Since there seems to be so much confusion over what happened, I’ve watched the movie two more times (my fifth and sixth viewings), and made notes of various “clues” throughout the movie, and hopefully explain what happens in the end. So, if you’re curious or confused, read on:
We know that The Prestige is told out of order, which in itself can be partly to blame for the confusion. Christopher Nolan (the director) likes making jumbled up movies. If you’ve never seen Memento, you should check it out, especially if you liked The Prestige. So, since the movie itself is told out of order, I’ll straighten it out, which may help a bit.
The very beginning of the movie is “today”, so to speak, the murder trial part. This is what’s considered “now.” However, the majority of the movie is told through a flashback. Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is in jail up until about an hour and fifty minutes into the movie. Borden’s in jail for murdering Angier (Hugh Jackman), in a magic trick gone wrong. All of the flashbacks are shown as Borden reads through Angier’s diary entries, which were provided to him by the assistant of Lord Caldlow.
Within the flashback (Borden reading Angier’s journal), Angier reads Borden’s journal. I think this is the part that confuses everyone. So let’s untwist the entire movie. I’ll explain in details how we come to the conclusion(s), after the explanation.
This is a summation of the events of the movie, in the order in which they happen on-screen, not necessarily the order in which they actually happened for the characters.
- NOW – Voice-over explanation of how magic tricks work. (Michael Caine’s voice-over)
Borden watches Angier drown.
Borden’s on trial for murdering Angier.
Borden goes to jail.
Borden is approached by Caldlow’s assistant (Owens), looking to buy his tricks, specifically the “Transported Man” secret.
As a show of good faith, Owens gives Borden Angier’s journal.
Borden reads Angier’s journal while imprisioned for murdering him, awaiting his death.
- FLASHBACK (Colorado) – Angier’s reading Borden’s diary, while in Colorado. Angier is in Colorado trying to figure out how Borden did his trick “The Transported Man.”
Angier tries to see Nikola Tesla, to create him a machine to do the “Transported Man” trick.
- FLASHBACK (England) – We go back to the first time Angier and Borden worked together as “plants” (people stuck in the crowd, but are really part of the show). The woman they tie up, who does the trick, is Angier’s wife Julia. Borden sets up his “masterpiece” by saying, “No one can do my trick.”
Cutter sends Angier and Borden to see the Asian magician, to see who can figure out how he does the “fishbowl” trick. Borden figures out the trick, that the Asian magician isn’t really old and fragile, that it’s part of his act, so that he can bring the fishbowl out on stage, between his legs.
- FLASHBACK (England) – Borden is performing as an assistant to Cutter’s friend. He meets Sarah, and her nephew. When Borden shows the canary to the crying boy, the boy asks, “But where’s his brother?” (Possible foreshadowing to the end of the movie)
Outside, Borden tells the little boy, “Never show anyone, they’ll beg you and they’ll flatter you for the secret.” (Another possible foreshadowing event to the end of the movie.)
Sarah goes inside her apartment, and locks the door. Borden appears inside her apartment.
- NOW – Cutter shows the judge Angier’s machine. Cutter asks if he can prevent Caldlow from getting the device. He explains it’s too dangerous, and that there is no trick, that the device is “real.”
Cutter shows the judge the tank that Angier drowned in, and that the trick lock was replaced with a real lock.
- FLASHBACK (England) – They perform the “woman escaping” trick again. Borden ties a different knot. Julia’s unable to escape, and drowns. (I know what you’re thinking, why didn’t anyone give her CPR? I wondered the same thing, and thought that maybe CPR wasn’t around in the late 1800s, but according to Wikipedia, it was.)
At the funeral, Angier asks Borden which knot he tied, he says “I keep asking myself that.”, “I’m sorry, I just don’t know.” Borden leaves, Angier yells at him “You don’t know?!”
Sarah meets Mr. Fallon, who speaks his some of his very few lines of the entire film. (I had not noticed this until just now, and am watching the movie so I can be sure these notes are accurate.) When he speaks, his mouth barely moves, and you don’t notice him speaking. He sounds so much like Borden, you assume it was he who spoke.
Sarah tells Borden she’s pregnant, his first words are, “That’s great. We shoulda told Fallon.” Foreshadowing? I think so.
He says he loves her, she replies with, “Not today, you don’t.”
- FLASHBACK (England) – Borden is performing his tricks in some little dive theater, being booed. He performs the bullet-catch, and a disguised Angier slips a bullet into the gun, and shoots off two of Borden’s fingers.
- FLASHBACK (Colorado) – Angier reads that Borden wrote “I told him the truth, that I have fought with myself over that night. One half of me swearing blind that I tied a simple slipknot, the other half convinced that I tied the langford double. I could never know for sure.”
- FLASHBACK (England) – Borden’s fingers are bleeding, again. The baby is crying, so we know this is months and months later.
- FLASHBACK (England) – Cutter invites Angier for a drink, tells him he wants to book Angier to perform. He settles on the name “The Great Danton”, and begins working on tricks. They hire Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) to be Angier’s assistant.
The Great Danton performs his tricks, Borden shows up, and repays him for shooting off his fingers by sabotaging Angier’s trick. The theater owner throws them out after a spectator gets hurt on stage.
- FLASHBACK (Colorado) – Tesla’s assistant meets with Angier, and tells him Telsa can see him. Angier tells the assistant that he wants the same machine that Tesla built for “another magician.” Tesla’s assistant shows Angier the work that Tesla’s working on.
- NOW – Borden’s daughter visits him in jail. Fallon tells Borden that they’re taking his daughter away to the “workhouse.” Borden says it’s okay to sell the secret to Caldlow, so that his daughter can be safe.
- FLASHBACK (Colorado) – Angier meets Tesla (played by a wonderful David Bowie), who agrees to build the machine that Angier wants.
- FLASHBACK (England) – Angier is putting on a disguise, to see Borden perform. We see Borden perform the “Transported Man” for the first time, and it stuns Angier to the point of obsession.
Cutter says “He uses a double;” “It’s too simple,” Angier says. Olivia agrees that he’s not using a double.
Angier and Cutter start setting up their version, and find a double for Angier.
Borden buys Sarah a house. She says “I asked you about this last week, you said…”; Borden replies, “You caught me in a wrong mood.”
Angier performs his trick “The New Transported Man” with his double. They celebrate.
Angier tells Olivia to go work for Borden, to get his secrets.
Olivia goes to tell Borden she wants to work for him, and that she’s going to doublecross Angier, because he sent her away.
We learn that Borden was the one who told the double that he could demand more, which is why he begins sabotaging the “New Transported Man” trick. He tells the double “I used a double.”
Angier shows up at Olivia’s. She tells him about the disguises at Borden’s, and that Cutter was right, that he “uses a double.” She gives Angier Borden’s notebook.
Angier follows Borden, Fallon follows Angier. Cutter and Angier trap Fallon in a coffin, and bury him alive. They threaten to let him die if Borden doesn’t give them the secret to the Transported Man trick.
- FLASHBACK (Colorado) – Angier visits Tesla’s workshop for a demonstration. Tesla attempts to use Angier’s hat for the demonstration, but nothing happens – the machine doesn’t work. Angier is rushed out of the workshop.
- FLASHBACK (England) – We find out Olivia doublecrossed the doublecross.
We find out Borden loves Olivia. He says “To open myself to such a relationship, to the dangers of such an affair, I need assurances of fidelity, of love. I had to be sure. I know a way, it’s the only way to know her mind.”
Angier finds out the journal that he’s been reading was written by Borden specifically to be read by Angier.
- FLASHBACK (Colorado) – Tesla’s machine does work, and they clone a cat, which Angier finds outside, along with dozens of his top hats, which were the results of the previous tests that they thought weren’t working.
- FLASHBACK (England) – Sarah’s drinking problem continues, getting worse.
Borden asks Fallon to take the daughter to the zoo, he says that “Sarah, she knows.”
- FLASHBACK (Colorado) – Telsa’s workshop has been burnt down, presumably by Thomas Edison’s men, who were his competitors.
Tesla left the working machine for Angier, who brings it back to England and begins practicing with it.
- FLASHBACK (England) – Angier works with the machine, and clones himself.
- NOW – Borden reads in Angier’s journal, “Yes you, Borden. Sitting in your cell, reading my diary, awaiting your death, for my murder.” Angier’s journal was intended for the other to read, just as Borden’s was.
Caldlow’s assistant explains that the journal wasn’t fake – it truly is written in Angier’s own hand. Borden hands over his tricks, without the prestiges. Says he wants to see his daughter one last time, before he hands over the prestiges.
- FLASHBACK (England) – Borden and Sarah are fighting. Sarah says “I know what you really are, Alfred.” Fallon takes the daughter away, so she doesn’t hear the fighting. We assume they’re fighting over Olivia.
Sarah hangs herself at Borden’s workshop.
- FLASHBACK (England) – Angier meets with Cutter, and tells him he wants to do another show, 100 performances.
Sarah said she wanted to meet Olivia before she hung herself; Olivia wonders what she would have said.
Borden says “Part of me loved her, part of me didn’t,” in regards to Sarah.
Olivia leaves Borden, because of how cold he is about Sarah’s death.
Angier performs his “Real Transported Man,” Borden knows he falls through the stage to dissappear, but not how he transports across the theater.
Borden yells at Fallon, and asks “Why can’t you outthink him?”
Angier’s stagehands remove the tank, while Fallon watches.
Borden says, “Let him have his trick, I don’t need his secret. So, don’t go back there, leave it alone, both of us. Just leave it alone. We’re done.” to Fallon.
Bordon examines the machine, and goes downstairs and watches Angier drown. He tries to break the glass, to save him.
Cutter identifies Angier’s body, who’s now dead.
- FLASHBACK (England) – Cutter asks if he can buy the Transported Man machine. Caldlow’s assistant says that he can ask Caldlow for the machine.
- NOW – Caldlow shows up to visit Borden, with Borden’s daughter Jess. Borden says, “I’ve missed you so much, Fallon has too.”
Caldlow is really Angier, or rather Angier is really Caldlow.
Borden is confused, because Angier is supposed to be dead, which is why he’s in jail.
Borden offers to give Angier the secret to the “Transported Man.” Angier rips it up, and throws it away. Angier says “Whatever your secret was, you have to agree, mine was better.”
Borden promises to bring Jess home soon.
- NOW (Somewhere in America) – Cutter shows up at Caldlow’s house, and sees that it’s Angier.
Cutter feels guilty for helping get Borden hung.
Caldlow says he’ll ensure the machine will be destroyed.
- NOW – Borden is talking with Fallon in jail, and says, “You’ll go alone now.”
Borden says “You were right, I should have left him to his damn trick. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for a lot of things. I’m sorry for Sarah. I didn’t mean to hurt her. I didn’t. You go live your life in full now, go live for both of us.” (Another clue from earlier, when Borden told Fallon to “leave him and his trick alone.”)
Fallon says, “Goodbye”, his second line in the movie at 1:54
- NOW – They bring Borden to be hung.
Cutter helps Angier lower the machine into the basement, where his other props are.
Borden’s last word is, “Abracadabra.”
Fallon enters Angier’s theater, as Cutter leaves.
Ball bounces to Angier, Borden shoots him.
Borden emerges from the shadows, minus two fingers, and removes Fallon’s hat.
Angier figures it all out. “A brother, a twin” he says.
“You were Fallon, the whole time.” Borden replies, “No, we were both Fallon, and we were both Borden.”
Borden explains (with help from flashbacks) how they cut off two fingers of the twin after the bullet catch incident, and how it was “bleeding again.”
He also explains the situation with Sarah and Olivia – “We each loved one of them. I loved Sarah. He loved Olivia. We each had half of a full life. Which was enough for us.”
Angier explains his trick. The machine would clone him each time, and he would then kill himself, and live on as the clone. Or, in some instances, he would kill the clone. “It took courage to climb into that machine every night, not knowing, if I’d be the man in the box, or the prestige.”
Angier’s dropped latern sets the theater on fire. The theater burns down.
- NOW – Voice-over, Cutter explains the magic trick again.
Borden shows up, and picks up Jess (the daughter) from Cutter.
As Borden leaves the theater, we see the water tanks with the Angier clones in them, drowned. We assume that each night he performed the trick, he killed another of himself/a clone, and kept their bodies hidden.
The movie ends.
Explanation of the higher-level points:Angier’s story: Angier was really Lord Caldlow the entire time, from the beginning of the movie, to the end. He pretended to be Angier so he could perform magic, without anyone knowing who he really was.
His wife was killed in an accident, so he took out for revenge against the man he felt was responsible for it, Borden.
Angier’s trick was performed with Tesla’s machine, which cloned him. The clone would generally take over for Angier, and Angier would be killed each night, as part of the trick.
Borden’s story: Borden had a twin brother. Each of them took turns being Borden, and being Fallon (the assistant). We don’t know which one was really which one, and if their names were really Alfred and/or Fallon.
One of them loved Sarah, the other loved Olivia.
Their trick was performed using a double, exactly how Cutter said it was performed.
One of them was hung in jail, the other confronted Caldlow/Angier, and shot him, leaving him for dead. He then picked up his daughter Jess, and went on with his life.
Clues? There’s a ton of them throughout the movie. And if you want to see them all, watch the movie a second time. Every time I watch it, I find new things that I’d missed before. Here’s a list of all the clues I’ve found, and the times they occur. (The time stamp is according to the Region 1 encoded DVD, and is in minutes:seconds format)
00:45 – We see Angier’s multiple top-hats, indicating that Tesla’s machine works.
02:04 – Angier uses blind stage hands, so they won’t see the dead clones.
02:47 – Angier/clone falls into the water, and drowns.
05:22 – Fallon is seen with Jess (the daughter) in the courtroom.
14:13 – “No one can do my trick,” Borden says, indicating that he’s put his entire life into the trick.
16:41 – “This is the trick” Borden says about the Asian magician. He can pick it out so quickly, because he’s doing the same thing.
19:23 – “But where’s his brother?” Sarah’s nephew asks Borden, foreshadowing that Borden has a brother.
20:20 – “Never show anyone, they’ll beg you and they’ll flatter you for the secret,” he says to the nephew, outside the theater.
21:09 – Sarah locks the door, with Borden outside. The twin brother’s already inside.
27:14 – “I’m sorry, I don’t know” – when Angier asks Borden which knot he tied. He doesn’t know, because the brother tied the knot.
28:00 – When Sarah says she’s pregnant, Borden’s first response is, “That’s great, we should have told Fallon.” Borden reacts this way because Fallon was actually the father.
30:07 – When Borden says he loves Sarah, she responds, “Not today, you don’t.” Sarah knows that the Borden in front of her doesn’t really love her. The other one does.
33:03 – “I told him the truth, that I have fought with myself over that night. One half of me swearing blind that I tied a simple slipknot, the other half convinced that I tied the langford double. I could never know for sure.” – Borden himself isn’t sure which knot he tied. The two Bordens fight over it.
33:26 – Sarah says, “I don’t understand how it can be bleeding again,” in regards to Borden’s two severed fingers. They’re bleeding “again” because they had just been cut off of the other twin.
42:10 – Tesla’s assistant says “Two of ’em,” in a completely unrelated conversation. But still, it’s a hidden clue.
46:44 – “I love you,” Borden says to Sarah, who replies, “Today it’s true.” This is the Borden who does love her.
48:05 – Fallon always wears gloves, to hide the fact that he’s missing the same two fingers as Borden.
51:30 – Tesla asks Angier, “Have you considered the cost?” in regards to the cloning machine. Losing one’s life every night is not an easy task.
54:55 – Cutter says “He uses a double.” It’s his simple explanation of the Transported Man trick.
56:20 – When Borden buys the house for Sarah, she says, “But we talked about this last week.” Borden says, “You caught me in a wrong mood.” She had talked about it with the other Borden.
1:04:30 – Fallon leaves when Olivia enters, so she can’t see who he really is. She would be able to tell.
1:07:58 – Borden admits to Root (Angier’s double) that, “I used a double.”
1:10:49 – “Cutter was right, he uses a double.” Olivia says to Angier, explaining about the “extra wigs” not used in the show.
1:11:10 – Olivia says, “He lives his act, don’t you see?”
1:16:52 – “How does he do it?” Angier asks Cutter, who replies, “The same way he always has.” Cutter insists Borden uses a double.
1:19:07 – “I had a terrible ordeal today,” Borden says to Sarah, as to why he’s drinking. Of course he did, he was buried alive as Fallon.
1:19:30 – “Secrets are my life,” Borden says to Sarah, “Stop performing.” she yells at him.
1:21:50 – When Fallon is taking Olivia home, he stares at her through the glass of the carriage. This is the Borden who loves Olivia.
1:22:00 – “To open myself to such a relationship, to the dangers of such an affair, I need assurances of fidelity, of love. I had to be sure. I know a way, it’s the only way to know her mind.” – Borden isn’t talking about cheating on his wife, really. He’s talking about how one Borden can be in love with Olivia, without Olivia giving away the secrets.
1:25:30 – We see Angier’s top hat duplicated, along with the handful of black cats.
1:26:38 – “I promised, did I?” Borden says to his daughter Jess, in regards to going to the zoo. The other Borden had promised to take her.
1:27:22 – “It’s so much harder when you don’t” Sarah says, in regards to the days that he loves her.
1:27:44 – “Jess wants to go to the zoo, I thought maybe you could take her,” Borden says to Fallon.
1:27:56 – “She knows,” Borden tells Fallon about Sarah.
1:28:38 – “I saw Fallon hanging around today,” Olivia tells Borden. Fallon (that day) was the one who loved her.
1:32:44 – “Olivia means nothing to me,” Borden tells Sarah. This is true; the other Borden is the one who loves Olivia.
1:33:05 – Sarah says she’s going to tell everyone what “You really are.” Borden says, “Sarah, shut up! You can’t talk like this.”
1:33:20 – Fallon carries Jess off.
1:34:07 – “Do you love me?” Sarah asks Borden. “Not today, no” he replies. The other Borden is the one who loves her.
1:38:49 – “I never loved Sarah,” Borden says to Olivia “part of me loved her, but part of me loves you.” The two separate “parts” are two separate people.
1:43:40 – “Why can’t you outthink him?” Borden says to Fallon. Fallon has no gloves on in this scene, the only time in the movie he’s gloveless, however he left hand is hidden under the table.
1:44:53 – “Both of us, leave him alone,” Borden says to Fallon.
1:49:22 – “Fallon’s missed you too, we both have.” Borden says to Jess, while in jail.
1:54:03 – “You were right, I should have left him alone. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for a lot of things. I’m sorry about Sarah” – Borden says to Fallon from jail. At this point, Fallon was the Borden who loved Sarah. The “I should have left him alone” is a big clue, which goes back to 9 minutes earlier, when Borden tells Fallon to leave him alone. At this point, they’re switched. The Borden who said “leave him alone” is now Fallon.
1:54:11 – Borden tosses the red bouncing ball to Fallon, just like he did in the act.
1:57:30 – Fallon enters Angier’s theater.
1:58:08 – The red ball bounces to Angier.
1:58:30 – Fallon comes out of the shadows as Borden.
1:58:43 – Angier figures it out, saying, “A brother. A twin. You were Fallon the whole time.” Borden replies, “No, we were both Fallon, we were both Borden.”
1:59:54 – “We each loved one of them”, Borden explains how they loved Sarah, and Olivia
2:01:59 – Angier shoots the first clone in a flashback, and explains how he cloned himself for the trick to Borden.
This movie is fantastic, and I highly recommend you check it out, if you haven’t already. If there’s anything I missed, or something that doesn’t make sense, please leave a comment, and I’ll do what I can to address it for you. I hope this helps clarify some of the questions you’ve had about The Prestige, I know it was a lot of fun to write, and it’s always great to get to watch the movie over and over again.