A supernaturally talented magician attempts to undermine the rigid social structure of turn-of-the-century Vienna by using his powers to win the love of his upper-class, childhood sweetheart in director Neil Burger's cinematic adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Steven Millhauser's short story. Though the ill-fated childhood romance between cabinetmaker's son Eisenheim (Edward Norton) and upper-class Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel) eventually resulted in the heartbroken young man leaving Austria to explore the world, his dreams of one day reuniting with the beautiful duchess never faded. Upon returning to Vienna 15 years later as a talented and renowned illusionist, Eisenheim's hopes of a reunion seem dashed when he learns that Sophie is currently engaged to the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). As the tensions between the Eisenheim and Leopold elevate, urbane Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) finds his sympathy toward Eisenheim growing, despite his formal obligations to the powerful prince.
In late nineteenth century Vienna, renowned illusionist Eisenheim is reunited with the Duchess von Teschen when she is volunteered from the audience to participate in an illusion during one of his performances. Despite having not seen each other in fifteen years when they were teenagers, they almost immediately recognize each other as Eduard Abramovich and Sophie von Teschen, they who had a doomed romance at that time due to their class differences.
Without a word of dialogue from beginning to end, The Illusionist relies on entrancing photography, a tour-de-force performance by its lead actors, and effective action scenes to keep audiences fascinated by the story of an older brother who is a magician, trying to save his younger brother (Jim Van Der Woude) from a long internment in a mental hospital. The "illusionist" is an anal-retentive personality, hanging on to the material things for dear life – but he loves his brother (who has Down Syndrome) and in spite of the restrictions of his puritanical family background, he is determined to rescue him from a life away from home and hearth. This film received the 1983 Netherlands' top national film award.