Cinema for Steampunks: The Illusionist (2006) Review

Eisenheim in his workshop
Eisenheim in his workshop

Illusions are about making an audience believe the impossible. Magicians can accomplish this through slight of hand, misdirection, and clever technology. Innovative and deceptive designs makes the turn of the century magician a great trope of steampunkery. At left, Eisenheim (Edward Norton) sits, pondering in his workshop before he achieve fame as one of these clever illusionists.

Most of this romantic drama centers on the relationship of Eisenheim and his childhood love, Sophie. The crown prince of Austria forces her to become engaged, and the magician must use all of his tricks to win her back.

Fun Facts and Context:

  •  The film is based on a story that appeared in a volume of short stories called The Barnum Museum (1990). This was in reference to Barnum’s American Museum, an American attraction of oddities popular in the 1840s-1860s.
  • The tale is called Eisenheim the Illusionist by Steven Millhauser. You can read the full text here.
  • The romantic intrigue that drives the film is completely absent from the original story. The police became interested in Eisenheim because of the disappearance of a rival magician.
  • Walter Uhl (played by Paul Giamatti), a police inspector, narrates this story as he tries to solve the mystery of Eisenheim. He spends most of the film flashing back over his investigation for the benefit of Prince Leopold of Austria (played by Rufus Sewel). The writers  based on Rudolf, the crown prince of Austria who died at the age of 30 in 1889. Rudolf had a mistress who died under shadowy circumstances like the character.
  • Edward Norton performed many of his own slight of hand tricks, but his hands were sometimes portrayed by his double, James Freedman.

What I Thought of The Illusionist


I would definitely recommend this film to any Steampunk fan who likes romance. Characters drive the film rather than action or other plot, but the acting is also great. Edward Norton brings a quiet sincerity to any role he plays. And Paul Giamatti never disappoints.

The filmmakers used computer graphics to enhance the illusions, which I think was a wise choice. Today’s movie-going public isn’t going to be as surprised and delighted as steam-era audience. The special effects did a great job of capturing the sort of awe and delight the audience would have felt for today’s viewers. But, if you are interested in authenticity, you can see a video of a real mechanical orange tree illusion here.

Of course, I can’t talk about The Illusionist without giving a shout out to The Prestige. I’ll do my own review soon, but did you have a favorite? Leave us a comment and tell us why you preferred one over the other!

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