As impressive as it was first time, the emotionality that was ostensibly at the crux of Inception initially struggled to register, and as a consequence subordinated the effect of Leonardo DiCaprio's Cobb. DiCaprio excelled of course, but not to the extent of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as 'Point Man' Arthur and Tom Hardy as 'Forger' Eames.
Gordon-Levitt was an eleventh hour casting after James Franco (Spider-Man, Pineapple Express) was unable to commit to the role due to scheduling conflicts, and predictably now having seen Gordon-Levitt's performance, it's hard to envisage Franco possessing the same dapper wit and likability.
Pivotal to Arthur's function was Hardy's Eames, who emerges as the surprise package of a film where the unexpected should be expected. Hardy had already embodied the unhinged characteristics in Bronson as the notorious and eponymous prisoner Charles, having displayed a kempt suaveness in small yet noticeable supporting roles in the likes of Layer Cake and Marie Antoinette. And the retention of his Hammersmith accent enhances the impudence and witty killings he metes out to whoever's subconscious, because it's a dream (or is it?).
The ying-yang dynamic that generates between Eames and Arthur is written with such a measured drollness that it's easy to yearn for more from them. But it makes the sporadic bursts of action all the more enthralling, and it's that balance which Nolan strikes that makes them an entertaining duo. They don't get sidetracked.
Incidentally, on the second occasion I saw Inception, the poignancy was more visceral. During the first viewing the dream within a dream within a dream within a dream concept wasn't distracting, so perhaps expectations of Nolan dealing with guilt and sentimentalism so successfully in Memento, The Prestige and his Batman films were overly demanding. However those moments exhibited by DiCaprio and Cillian Murphy's Robert Fischer in the final act are empathetically moving, with the aid of Hans Zimmer's evocative score.
But still, it is the character acting of Gordon-Levitt and Hardy which rates highest. The emotional core of Inception is indeed portrayed in a beautifully heartfelt manner by DiCaprio and Murphy, with the former aided by an ambivalent and duplicitous Marion Cotillard. But forgive the shallowness, but it's the entertainment factor which Gordon-Levitt and Eames produce that makes them so outstanding. These two previously indie-merchants have now, at the first time of asking effectively, slotted as comfortably into the mainstream stratosphere as a sleeping extractor. That their chiselled mugs will doubtless feature in the headline films year after year is as much a dream for the girls as it is the acting enthusiasts.