The Illusionist is a welcome surprise in so many ways. In a role purpose-built for Scarlett Johanssen, Jessica Biel proves that she is both the better actress and the more luminously beautiful. Edward Norton – he of tatoos and fists in American X – is here surprisingly delicate and feminine; check out his hands as he performs mesmerising magic tricks. And mad-eyed Rufus Sewell embodies all that’s worst about the monarchy as the campily cruel Duke of Kent, sorry, Crown Prince Leopold.

It’s also strange that such a small and simple story is given such richly lustrous treatment; 1900’s Vienna has simply never looked better on film – there are depths upon depths of production value here.

In brief, the aristocratic Sophie von Teschen (Biel) is betrothed to the vile, controlling Crown Prince Leopold, heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian empire. However, the magician Eisenheim (Ed Norton) is her old childhood flame, and his reappearance in Vienna throws all their worlds into disarray. And buggy Paul Giamatti plays the police inspector sent by the Prince to worm out Eisenheim’s fraud.

There are obviously flaws; there’s no great sense of undying love between Norton and Biel, and the feel of the film is somewhat anachronistically modern, inspite of the historical setting. And I’m not a big fan of magic shows generally, which I find as disrespectful and manipulative as televised wrestling.  Nevertheless, The Illusionist stands as a thing of beauty. It was filmed (entirely unsurprisingly) in Prague and Tábor in the Czech Republic, while the scenes set in Eisenheim’s childhood village were shot in ?eský Krumlov. The Crown Prince’s castle is actually the historical fortress of Konopišt? near Benešov, which was once the home of the real Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. Check out Peter Dirkx’ on location pics at Flickr.