There is no standard therapy for malignant pleural mesothelioma (MPM), but recent reports have shown that extensive surgery combined with chemo- and radiotherapy prolongs the survival of selected patients with early stage disease. This emphasises the need for accurate staging procedures at diagnosis and reliable imaging methods to assess response to treatment. Computed tomography (CT) of the chest has been the standard imaging method for these purposes for the last decade, but it is limited in its ability to demonstrate accurately the platelike growth pattern of MPM within the thorax due to the partial volume effect on curved surfaces. In order to define the value of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in the imaging of MPM, we have compared the findings from 26 parallel paired CT and MRI scans of mesothelioma patients at various stages of the disease. MRI showed tumour spread into the interlobar fissures, tumour invasion of the diaphragm and through the diaphragm, and invasion of bony structures better than CT. Invasion of the chest wall and mediastinal soft tissue and tumour growth into the lung parenchyma were equally well seen on both imaging methods. CT was better for detecting the inactive pleural calcifications. MRI is a sensitive detector of the characteristic growth pattern and extension of MPM and we recommend its use more widely for the clinical management of MPM especially when evaluating tumour resectability and in research protocols when an accurate evaluation of disease extent is essential.