The story is set in 1959 and is told with only a few brief snatches of heavily accented and often indistinguishable dialogue.
A down-on-his-luck illusionist (known by his stage name, "Tatischeff") watches his popularity and employment in Paris dry up.
He packs his meager belongings and props, including an ill-tempered white rabbit, and moves to London.
There he finds himself as the irrelevant act following a popular rock band.
Despite his wounded pride, he adopts a nothing-to-lose attitude and continues plying his trade at yet smaller gatherings in bars, cafés, and private parties.
Eisenheim's portrait of the Emperor seen in the palace performance scene closely resembles Franz Joseph I of Austria. The character Leopold somewhat resembles Crown Prince Rudolf, who committed suicide after killing his mistress. This incident caused an international scandal and has attracted much subsequent conjecture.
Iris fades and the final montage sequence in The Illusionist, as well as Eisenheim's name, suggest a nod to director Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948). The iris fade and montage were used prominently in Eisenstein's famous Bolshevik propaganda film The Battleship Potemkin. The "Odessa Steps" sequence in that film proved so powerful that many audiences believed they were viewing actual newsreel footage, prompting Eisenstein to label himself an "illusionist".