The film premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival and opened the 2006 Seattle International Film Festival; it was distributed in limited release to theaters on August 18, 2006, and expanded nationwide on September 1. The film was a commercial and critical success.
In Vienna, Austria-Hungary, 1889, a magician named Eisenheim is arrested by Chief Inspector Walter Uhl of the Vienna Police during a magic show involving necromancy. Later, Uhl explains the story of Eisenheim's life to Crown Prince Leopold.
Eisenheim was born to a cabinet-maker and became interested in magic after meeting a travelling magician. He also fell in love with Sophie, the Duchess von Teschen, but the two were forbidden to see each other on account of the former being a peasant. They kept meeting secretly but were caught one day and separated by force. Eisenheim proceeded to study magic by travelling the world, and fifteen years later returned to Vienna to perform. During one performance, he encounters the adult Sophie and learns that she is expected to marry the Crown Prince Leopold, who, it is rumored, is brutal towards women and in the past even murdered one. Eisenheim conducts a private show for the Crown Prince and humiliates him in the course of it. In response, he is banned from performing again in Vienna. Eisenheim asks Sophie to flee with him, but Sophie is afraid that they will be executed. Sophie also reveals that the Crown Prince is planning a coup d'etat against his elderly father, the Emperor Franz Joseph I.
At the Mayerling hunting lodge, Sophie tries to end her engagement with Leopold. He reacts by chasing her into the stables with a sword, in full view of the servants. Sophie's body is discovered the next morning in the Vienna Woods, an unknown man blamed for her assassination. This throws Eisenheim into a deep depression. He eventually buys a theatre and begins a new series of magic shows, this time focusing exclusively on the summoning of dead spirits. Leopold secretly attends one of them, during which Eisenheim summons the spirit of Sophie, who says that someone in the theater is her murderer. Leopold, highly unnerved, orders Uhl to arrest Eisenheim for fraud, but Eisenheim manages to avoid jail by openly confessing to the public that his show is a mere illusion.
Eisenheim is threatened that if he summons Sophie in his next performance, he will be arrested and likely imprisoned. Uhl attends the packed performance with dozens of officers, and in spite of the warnings, Eisenheim brings Sophie's spirit to life again. Uhl storms the stage with his officers, but to the shock and horror of the audience, Eisenheim is revealed to be a spirit after Uhl's hand passes through him. Eisenheim then fades away in front of everyone.
Uhl reveals to Leopold that he found evidence, namely a jewel from Leopold's sword and Sophie's distinctive locket, which could implicate Leopold in Sophie's murder. Uhl has already informed the Emperor and the General Staff of Leopold's conspiracy to seize the throne. Leopold reacts by pointing a revolver at Uhl and threatening to kill him, but as officers of the imperial guard of the Austro-Hungarian Army arrive on the scene, Leopold shoots himself in the head. Later, as Uhl exits the palace, having just lost his position as Chief Inspector of Police, he is approached by a boy who gives him a folio explaining a magic trick of Eisenheim's that Uhl had been trying to figure out. Realizing it is a message from the illusionist, Uhl begins to re-examine in his thoughts all recent events. He concludes that Sophie and Eisenheim staged her death so she could be free of Leopold. Uhl laughs in delight at the brilliance of their plan, while far away Sophie and Eisenheim start a new life togetherEdward Norton as Eisenheim the Illusionist (born Eduard Abramovich)
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as young Eisenheim
Paul Giamatti as Chief Inspector Walter Uhl
Jessica Biel as Duchess Sophie von Teschen
Eleanor Tomlinson as young Sophie
Rufus Sewell as Crown Prince Leopold
Eddie Marsan as Josef Fischer, Eisenheim's manager
Jake Wood as Jurka
The script was based loosely on "Eisenheim the Illusionist", a short story by Steven Millhauser from Millhauser's 1990 collection The Barnum Museum. Together with The Prestige and Scoop, The Illusionist was one of three films in 2006 to explore the world of stage magicians.
Magic consultancy and technical advice during the production was supplied by James Freedman, Ricky Jay, Michael Weber and Scott Penrose. Director Neil Burger wrote, "Starting in pre-production, James (Freedman) became a major collaborator; brainstorming, designing and refining everything from small sleight of hand tricks to major narrative set pieces. He worked with Edward Norton preparing him for his stage performances and acted as a hand double in various scenes. His contribution was enormous." Aaron Johnson, who plays the teenage Eduard in the beginning of the film, also learned how to do the ball trick seen in those scenes.
The original story, on which the movie is based, does not include the artifice of the protagonist framing the Archduke for murder.
Although the film is set in Austria, it was filmed mostly in the Czech Republic. The city of Vienna is represented in the film by Tábor and Prague, while the scenes set in Eisenheim's childhood village were shot in Český Krumlov. The Crown Prince's castle is actually the historical fortress of Konopiště (located near Benešov), formerly the home of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. The front gates of Leopold's Vienna palace (the Hofburg) were actually the front gates of Prague Castle. All other shots were at Barrandov Studios in Prague.
As of June 29, 2008 the film has earned worldwide box office receipts of $87,892,388, including $39,868,642 in the United States, exceeding its reported $16.5 million budget. In the first five months after it was released on DVD in January 2007, the film earned $35.99 million in rental revenue.
The Illusionist received mostly positive reviews. Rotten Tomatoes classified it as 74% "certified fresh" with 187 reviews (as of February 13, 2014). Jonathan Rosenbaum's review in The Chicago Reader praised Paul Giamatti's performance of "a character who feels sympathy for the magician but owes allegiance to Leopold and is therefore divided and compromised ... Giamatti's performance is subtle, expressive, and richly nuanced." Stephen Holden, in his review for The New York Times, praised Edward Norton's role, which, according to him, "perfectly fits his disturbing inscrutability". Variety wrote that Jessica Biel "is entirely stunning enough to fight to the death over".
Director of Photography Dick Pope earned a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, losing at the 79th Academy Awards to Guillermo Navarro, cinematographer for Pan's Labyrinth.
The soundtrack for the film was composed by Philip Glass and was released on 15 August 2006."The Illusionist" – 2:24
"Do You Know Me" – 2:48
"Chance Encounter" – 3:23
"The Locket" – 2:54
"The Orange Tree" – 1:47
"The Mirror" – 1:27
"Wish I Would See You Again" – 1:26
"The Sword" – 0:36
"Meeting in the Carriage" – 1:09
"Sophie" – 2:50
"The Secret Plot" – 2:53
"Sophie's Ride to the Castle" – 2:05
"The Accident" – 1:30
"The New Theater" – 1:39
"Frankel Appears" – 3:26
"A Shout from the Crowd" – 2:02
"Eisenheim Disappears" – 2:07
"The Search" – 3:00
"The Missing Gem" –3:03
"The Chase" –4:11
"Life in the Mountains"-4:31
On October 14, 2014, it was announced that The CW was developing a TV series based on the film.