SISSY SPACEK has spunk. And after this fall's flurry of obsessed, repressed and depressed heroines, it's a joy to see a leading lady with a little bit of pluck.

Spacek, her blond hair bobbing practically, heels clicking purposefully against the marble of the Tennessee capitol, stars in "Marie: A True Story," an engrossing study in courage and integrity from a novel by Peter Maas.

Marie Ragghianti is a battered wife who gathers up her three kids and her convictions, leaves her husband and raises the children on her own while working for two college degrees. Her domestic trials, including the illness of her youngest son, give her the inner strength and stamina to bring down the corrupt governor of Tennessee.

It's a solid, saintly story written by John Briley of "Gandhi" fame. Roger Donaldson, who also directed th domestic drama "Smash Palace," is at the helm here. He directs with authority, but the script somehow never meshes the two aspects of Marie's life -- home and career -- into a dramatic whole.

Marie, a political appointee, becomes the first woman to head the Tennessee Board of Pardons and Paroles -- partly because Gov. Ray Blanton thinks she is a pushover and partly because she has earned it. Soon she begins to suspect state officials of selling pardons and clemencies. And when she refuses to play ball with the governor and his goons, she's fired on a trumped-up charge.

Watergate attorney Fred Thompson, who defended Marie in her real-life suit against Gov. Blanton, enthusiastically tries the fictional case against unlawful dismissal. A natural star, he gives so much oompf to the courtroom scene it almost makes you want to commit a crime just to hire the guy.

Spacek calls on her country-girl strengths from "The River" and "Coal Miner's Daughter," but also adds a cool, collected new dimension to her repertoire.

Jeff Daniels of "Terms of Endearment" relishes his oily costarring role as the conniving, two-bit Eddie Sisk, the governor's legal counsel and Marie's mentor. There's something positively demonic about this guy's upper lip. And Don Hood, as Blanton, is a stereotypical southern scalawag, the kind of high-handed official who falls prey to palookas like Rambo and Remo these days. But here, a firm young woman takes him to court. And she doesn't even have a hatpin.

"Marie" has its problems; it's cold and aloof at times. Still it's heartening to find a heroine who isn't a victim, but a stand-up gal in control of her life.

MARIE: A TRUE STORY (PG-13) -- At area theaters.